A Question God Asks
By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Other than the Bible itself, the greatest work of Christian literature may well be Dante’s Divine Comedy. Thousands of lines in length, this poem recounts the adventures of the author as he is led through hell, purgatory, and heaven. Its numerous scenes present great truths in rich symbolism. These scenes speak to the human heart. The memory of them lingers.
Dante experiences Purgatory as a mountain of hope. Those climbing it have been saved by grace, and look forward to the glorious vision of God. Yet their journey remains incomplete. It is a process of growth that happens only gradually and includes a pain that helps to heal. Each stage along the way removes the effects of a different kind of sin. On each terrace, Dante is shown the effects of a particular sin on the sinner, together with examples of the opposite virtue.
One of the most memorable scenes occurs in that place where envy is overcome. Those afflicted by this sin are clothed in coarse garments and sit among the rocks like pitiful blind beggars, each leaning on a neighbor’s shoulder. They hear sounds around them, but they do not see. Their eyelids have been sewn shut with iron wire.
Dante depicts the envious as blind. They cannot see the light that surrounds them. Their blindness is no accident. It results from the many times they chose not to recognize life as a gift freely given to everyone even as the daylight is a gift. The envious always wanted what others had. They could not celebrate the gifts those others had received. They closed their eyes to the light of a shared life and sewed them shut.
Envy is blind. This is a self-inflicted blindness. We see this in the story that Jesus tells about a labor-management dispute. It seems that a vineyard owner pays his whole crew a full day’s wage whether they worked for only an hour or spent all day slaving in the summer heat. Those who worked a full day are enraged. They call the owner’s action unjust.
The owner sees it differently. The all-day workers have not been cheated. He has rescued them from idleness, they have received the agreed-upon wage, and they have enough to live on. The vineyard owner looks with compassionate eyes on the other workers. He knows that they also need a full day’s wage in order to get by. The wage he pays them represents a fresh start, new life for those who have borne the heavy burden of unemployment through long hours of the day.
Yet the all-day workers know only the arithmetic of strict justice. Though they receive what they expect and what they need, they want to deny life’s necessities to others. Their eyes are sewn shut by envy. They no longer see the human faces of their neighbors.
How sad are the eyes of the envious, their lids sewn shut with wire! They sew their eyes shut themselves, and find no pleasure in the work. As Henry Fairlie notes in his book,
The Seven Deadly Sins Today, “If all sins are loveless, Envy’s eyes are particularly so. They seem to find nothing to love in all the world, not in the whole of creation, not in anyone else, not even when they are turned up to what is lovely. The other sins have been celebrated, however perversely, in popular song down the ages, but Envy has no song. It does not sing; it cannot bear to look, except through its slit eyes; it is unable to love, because it is riddled with fear.” [Henry Fairlie, The Seven Deadly Sins Today (University of Notre Dame Press, 1978), p. 68.]
Envy is unable to love. That has its sad results. The first is what it does to the heart. All sins make the heart hard, but envy goes further. In the words of one religious classic, envy “frets and gnaws the very heart of him that harbors it.” [The Whole Duty of Man (c. 1658).] Envy does not simply makes us indifferent to God, but envy causes us to murmur against God, for when we become sad because someone else experiences good, then we are saddened by God, who is the author of all good, and what we speak against is his mercy.
Another result of envy is what Parker Palmer terms “the scarcity assumption.” [Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 124-29.] The envious see the world as a place where whatever we need must necessarily be in short supply. This attitude justifies every extreme of war, competition, and sheer survival. It makes nonsense of community life and acts of compassion.
The scarcity assumption is seductive. To the degree we act on it, we help to make it more real. If we take more than our share of the earth’s resources, we make them scarce for others. If we force people to compete, we cause them to be hostile and suspicious. If we allow only a few to succeed, then we condemn the rest to failure.
Envy touches each of us from time to time. We all have a strange urge to shut our eyes and sew them together with iron wire so that we no longer see daylight or the splendor of creation or the face of Christ in our neighbor.
The remedy for this is two-fold. First, we must practice thankfulness to God. Thank God not only for what is rich and rare, but also for what is plain and ordinary, and you will find that glory flashes in every plain place, that God leaves no day or hour unvisited. Practice thanking God, and the scarcity assumption will not make sense; you will recognize it as a lie. Become proficient in thankfulness, and you will experience abundance. It is not that the world will change, but that your eyes will be open.
The remedy’s other part is to show kindness to others. This we must do if we are to escape from envy. Show kindness, and the less people deserve it, the better. Do not reserve your courtesy for saints. Take God as your example, who makes the sun shine on good and bad alike. Pray the most for those you like the least. This may be the blowtorch needed to soften your heart, to make it pliable again. Practice kindness, and you will find community, but not in the way you expected. And through that difference, your healing will happen.
Kindness and thankfulness do not originate with us. They are only responses to what we hear in our hearts. For if we listen carefully, we will hear in our hearts a question that today we heard in Scripture: “Are you jealous because I am generous?” (a literal translation),
“Are you jealous because I am generous?” This question, once asked of irate workers, can lead us from murmuring to thankfulness. It can cause us to rejoice in a generosity that is universal, that extends to everyone. It can lead us from condemnation to kindness. The generosity we rejoice in becomes the spring and source of what we do.
When envy shuts our eyes, as it does from time to time, we must listen with our hearts. Kindness and thankfulness offer the way to new sight. They enable us to open our eyes, to realize that there is no “they” but only “we”, no “mine” but only “ours”.
Copyright 2002 the Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.