Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ
at Church of St Ignatius – Singapore
on 5 July 2015
The Greek slave Aesop wrote, “A fox had never seen a lion before, and when he finally encountered one for the first time, he was so terrified that he almost died of fright. When he met him the second time, he was still afraid but managed to conceal his fear. When he saw him the third time, he was so emboldened that he went up to him and began having a familiar conversation with him.” And Aesop draws the lesson of this little story with the now very well known phrase, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” (Aesop’s Fables, Penguin books, 1996,p.23).
It is not difficult to see that this was precisely what happened to Jesus in today’s Gospel account when His own townspeople rejected Him. In the first place, Jesus’ townspeople readily admitted that He not only had great wisdom, but great power to perform miracles. And that all these were beyond any of them. However, they could not admit that all this is true and happening. Some were even angry and frustrated at not having what Jesus had which is typical of what envy is all about. So, to justify their refusal to face the truth they had to assert that all the wisdom and divine power that Jesus had could not be true because Jesus, whom they knew so well was merely a “carpenter’s son! The son of Mary . . . and so the Gospel tells us, “They would not accept Him.”
Envy is a form of discontentment and unhappiness that we experience when someone has possessions, achievements or qualities that we do not have and wish to have. It is a kind of sick covetousness. In moral theology, envy is one of the capital sins because it is a sin that breeds other sins.
A Jewish moralist, Moshe Haim Luzzatto (1707-1745) writes, that envy gains nothing for himself and deprives the one he envies of nothing. He who envies is the only one who loses . . . He says that “there are those who are so foolish that if they perceive their neighbour to possess a certain good, they brood and worry and suffer to the point that their neighbour’s good prevents them from enjoying their own good.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, let us put this in another way. “How many of us feel happy when we hear someone we know has just bought a bigger house and driving a bigger car than ours, or whose children’s grades were all A stars while ours were getting Bs and Cs? How often and when was the last time we praised someone for doing something better than us? In our conversations, do we hear more negative remarks of people or do we say a lot of good things about them?
Fr Neil Guillemette, my Jesuit professor of Scripture’ wrote profoundly on envy when he reflected on today’s Gospel. He says, which I adapt for my homily, “Unfortunately, all of us can be envious at times. We have difficulty acknowledging the achievements and successes of our peers, neighbours and others. We are offended when others are impressed by the successes of others. We have difficulty seeing the greatness of those we rub shoulders with, work with and even live with every day.
Yet, if we were to go beyond our small mindedness and envy, we will be able to discover the greatness and beauty that is present in every person, including those who have hurt and harmed us and to whom we have good reasons to be angry about. Morton Kelsey, a spiritual author and marriage family counsellor says that “When we are able to accept the darkness and ugliness that we see in another person, (especially those who have hurt and harmed us, and those whom we are envious about), we will be able to see a beauty that we never dreamed existed. We will touch the deepest levels of the incredible human psyche where dwells the spirit of the living Christ, the Holy Spirit.” Here we will discover the greatest power and love and beauty who will guide us into the deepest reaches of the spiritual world.
However, for this to happen, we must also have the courage to look at and listen to the darkness that we too have within ourselves. With God’s graces this is not impossible. When we have such honesty, sincerity and humility of heart to seek the Truth of Christ and nothing but the Truth of Christ, then the veil of “darkness” that are in our hearts will gradually fade and one day lift from our troubled hearts. And when this happens, we will not only experience the freedom and peace of living in Christ, but also find that we are able to discover the communion we have with one another and with God, as brothers and sisters in Christ. We will then discover the truth that every person is precious in the eyes of God who dwells in them and in us through the Holy Spirit.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, when Jesus’ townspeople rejected Him with great envy, Jesus merely pointed out the Truth to them. He said, “In his own country among his own relations and in his own house.” Jesus did not impose His Truth on them; He respected their freedom to reject Him; this is the price of rejection He has to pay as a Prophet and as the Messiah.
In today’s First Reading, we see how prophet Ezekiel was precisely sent to “deserters, “apostates”, the “obstinate,” “rebels”, and the “hard of heart”; so also were Prophet Isaiah, Jeremiah and others who also experienced rejection in their hometowns. In fact, most of them were murdered in their belief that this would finally silence their voices (Mt 13:37; Lk 13:34). Only later, perhaps, will people realise that “a prophet has been among them.” Jesus Himself was radically rejected: He was betrayed by a Christian, cast off by the Jews, condemned to death by a Gentle. Gospel John 1:11 says, “His own people did not accept Him,” even though they were “His own.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, envy is a reality that is present within us in different degrees and shades. We could either allow it to worsen and have a grip on us or we could choose to live in the wisdom of Christ that will give us the peace and joy that God wants us to have. For this truth to take root in our hearts, we need to beg God for the graces we need.
St Paul in today’s Second Reading gives us a good insight on how we can live the Christ-like life that God Wills of you and me. He says, “I was given a thorn in the flesh . . . and I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but He said, ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness. So, I shall be happy to make my weaknesses my special boast, so that the power of Christ my stay over me, and that I am quite content with my weaknesses, and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and the agonies I go through for Christ’s sake. For it is when I am weak that I am strong.”
And so as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that first, envy in moral theology is a capital sin because it is a sin that breeds other sins . . . As such, we need to beg God, as St Paul did, for the graces we need to weed out such inhibitions and un-freedoms that we have in our hearts. Second, if we allow envy to take root in our hearts, then we will as in today’s Gospel, not be able to allow Jesus’ divine Wisdom to inspire and lead us and His power to work miracles in our daily living. Third, as with St Paul we all need to have the humility to die to ourselves and our envious ways of think and living, and accept that it is only when we put God at the centre of our lives and allow Him to love us more fully in spite of weaknesses that we can then experience Him personally and powerfully in our lives – the deep peace and joy of what St Paul says, “It is when I am weak that I am strong”; strong in the Lord to live in God’s Love and Christ-like Ways.
(ref: “Hearts Burning,” Homilies for Sundays of the Year, Nil Guilemette,S.J. St Pauls Pub: Philippines; 2006: p250-252)
Light of the World, Brief Reflections on the Sunday Readings, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Ignatius Press: Theological Pub. in India; 1993: p.218).
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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