Even though envy is called one of the “seven deadly sins,” it isn’t really that serious … is it?
A couple of Sundays ago, I found myself coveting my friend’s sweater during the sermon. How could I not? It was the perfect shade of green and sported the most charming tiny pocket on the upper sleeve. After church I jokingly confessed my “sin” to my friend, telling her I’d been coveting her sweater all during church.
Envy sounds so Exodus-y, doesn’t it? Not many people I know covet their neighbor’s male or female servant or his ox or his donkey. We file that particular commandment in the “doesn’t apply to me in the 21st century” category, along with offering burnt sacrifices. Coveting is so early fourth century B.C.
Envy, if we think of it at all, belongs in the same benign category gluttony does in regard to how seriously we take it, which is to say, we don’t.
Then we hear of stories like what happened last Sunday in New York: Recently fired 25-year-old Mingdong Chen murdered his cousin’s wife and four children because he was jealous of him. NYPD Chief Phil Banks said, “He made a very soft comment that since he came to this country, everybody seems to be doing better than him.” Another source said, “The family had too much. Their income [and] lifestyle was [sic] better than his.”
We might, as I did with my friend, joke or call envy the “green-eyed monster,” as though it’s a darling little sidekick like Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket and not a sin that might result in something as horrifying as a family massacre.
The Eastern Orthodox “little red prayer book” has a section about self-examination in which a series of questions for each commandment is asked. Here are a few of the questions it asks about the 10th:
- Have I envied anything good that has come to others?
- Have I been jealous of another’s good fortune?
- Have I wished for anything that was another’s?
- Have I wished for things God has not given me, or been discontented with my lot?
- Have I hoped for the downfall of anyone so that I might gain by it?
Fleshed out like this, the commandment illuminates a sin that is less an antiquated command about male servants and donkeys and more like Bill Murray in the movie What About Bob: “I want, I want, I need, I need!”
It’s not just my friend’s sweater I might want. I might want her Pottery Barn house; her cute, well-behaved kids; her thick hair; her cool writing gig; or her new book deal.
But I have to remind myself that envy isn’t cute and it isn’t a joke.
As we saw in New York last weekend, it can be dead serious.