Envy is a particularly evil sin because by means of it we wish to deprive others without gaining anything ourselves—it is the self-pitying refuge of all of us when we become embittered and petty. The YouCat, a version of the Catechism which Pope Benedict XVI directed to be developed for use among young adults, says this about envy: “Envy is sadness and annoyance at the sight of another’s well-being and the desire to acquire unjustly what others have” (YouCat 466).
That is exactly what we see happening in today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers. Numbers is not often read at mass; a passage from it is proclaimed every year on New Years’ Day, and every third year on the twenty-sixth Sunday of the year (today), aside from a few readings at weekday masses. It tells the story of the people of Israel after they had left their slavery in Egypt and before they entered into the promised land of Canaan, and it is full of rich imagery and moral lessons.
In today’s excerpt from Numbers, we hear how a group of seventy elders of the people were about to receive the Spirit of the Lord so that they could assist the over-worked Moses in leading and judging the people during their desert wandering. A young member of the congregation saw that two men, Eldad and Medad, had received the very same prophetic gift of the Spirit even though they were not among the chosen seventy. He and Joshua, Moses’ principal assistant, became envious and complained to Moses
“Moses, my lord, stop them!” asking him to forbid Eldad and Medad from exercising their God-given gift. Moses wisely reproves them: “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!” (Num 11:28-29).
Moses understood that God will give gifts to whom he wishes to give gifts, and while it is natural to wonder how the Lord “decides” upon such outpourings of the Spirit, nonetheless we are not to be envious of others’ blessings. This theme is taken up subtly but firmly in the gospel account of our Lord rebuking his disciples when they had tried to chase away someone who was driving out demons in Jesus’ name, but was not of the company of the disciples. Plainly speaking, they were envious of this man who succeeded in doing something they had failed at (see Mark 9:14-29).
Jesus takes up the lesson of the reading from Numbers when he tells the disciples: “Do not prevent him…whoever is not against us is for us” (9:39-40). He then continues to teach them that there are in fact deeds that confirm their practitioners are very much “against” the Lord and “against us” who wish to be his followers. Of such a person Jesus says “it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Further, he tells his disciples that they must be willing to set aside anything that gets in the way of being “for Jesus” when he says “If your hand / foot / eye causes you to sin, cut it off / tear it out” (9:43-47).
Stemming from that teaching, the reading from the Epistle of James which precedes the gospel can be seen in its proper light: riches and the seeming security they provide can put us squarely in the “against” Jesus camp. James says: “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries” (James 5:1). Be it temporal riches or the spiritual gifts that God bestows on others, many intrinsically good things can become stumbling blocks for us when they become ends in themselves or when envy of them takes over. Let us rejoice then in whatever gifts that come from the gracious hand of the Lord, whether they be given to us—or to another.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.