28 – Green with Envy
“… For me you never gave so much as a young goat …
but … you sacrificed for him the fatted calf!”
I have felt a great sadness over the years for the older brother. As he peruses his own past, he sees only its difficulties, and none of its joys. He feels like he had to work like a slave for years. He feels like any desire to have friends was always thwarted by his father’s stinginess towards him. Twice he uses the word “Never” which carries the meaning ”never ever,” which is a long time. “I never ever disobeyed your commands!” “You never ever gave me so much as a young goat.”
The order of the words in the Greek text is revealing. Words are often arranged in an order that emphasizes the dominant word in a sentence. Hear the word order; “Listen! So many years I slaved for you… and never a commandment of yours I disobeyed…. and for me never did you give a young goat…” He is emphasizing how long he has suffered injustice from his father.
Perhaps upon the desertion of his younger brother he had had to do the work of two, and that was hard. The increased frugality, caused by his brother carrying off his share of the estate in transportable cash, had made spending money on anything but basic necessities rather difficult. But “never ever” is, without doubt, an unfair complaint.
So let me examine what benefits he might have had, as he stayed home, even in tough times.
- He had work. He didn’t have to go seeking employment as his younger sibling had. Ask the unemployed how depressive it is to find no work. It is not just the loss of income that is painful, it is the feeling of worthlessness that can starve the spirit. The older brother was more fortunate than he dreamed.
- Though the work may have been hard, on the Sabbath, and during the Festival Days, The Law of Israel freed him from work for those days, so that life could be punctuated by leisure and rest.
- He didn’t have to work for a cruel task master. The younger brother apparently worked for a pig farmer, who paid such small wages that he could barely survive on them. The older son worked for what appeared to a very generous father.
- From the details of the story, it seems that there were servants, day-labourers and even errand boys who could take on the brunt of the hard work. His role may have been that of foreman, managing a work force with all its attendant perks.
- As the son and heir he would have been considered to be an important citizen in the community, who had considerable land, and could hire people to work. Such position brings its own privileges.
- He may have been immune from the famine that overtook his young sibling. The famine may have been limited to that far country, and not even come close to where he lived.
- He had a home to return to at the end of every work day. His younger brother might have needed to sleep outdoors or beg for a spot in a barn on some of those nights. There is no place like home!
- He got to work in the great outdoors. He got to share in the joy of the gardener/farmer who delights in the growing of crops and the reaping at harvest time. He would have been able to be there at lambing season as new life was born. A farm is a place of new beginnings! What pleasures are possible in such a world of growing things.
- Even as he worked, he would know that it was an investment of energies, from which he would gain from his labor while his father lived, and after his father’s passing, would inherited the entire operation and could pass it on to any children he might have.
- If the casual labourers ate well, he would have fared even better. He had never come close to eating pig food, complaining. “here I am, perishing with hunger” as the younger had. At the end of a hard day’s work, would come a healthy appetite, and a table spread with home grown foods.
- He also had the chance to work in companionship with his Father. Working side by side throughout the years together could have been deeply nourishing, as they shared the love of a land that helped bind them together. The father seems to have enjoyed that as he says, “you have always been with me” which may have been the father’s one remaining joy, after what he thought was the loss of his younger son. To bring his father pleasure, should have been a pleasure to him!
- Another thing he gained was from what he did not gain. There were no scars in the memory from dark deeds done; no dissipation of body or mind from living to excess; no wild oats sown with its attendant regret; no guilt over wealth wasted.
- And finally, when his brother returned, he had the opportunity to be a true elder brother. He could have risen to the opportunity to act like an adult, instead of being childish and churlish. He had a chance to help restore the younger man, and then work alongside of him, helping to repair what has been broken in the younger man, and in their relationship, and in consequence could have helped healed all that was broken in himself.
How fortunate his life had been. He could easily have sung with the Psalmist, “Life has fallen to me in very pleasant places! I have a great heritage!” (Psalm 16:6)
Then why so unhappy?
He answers our question in the contrast he paints between how the father seemed to treat him, and how he was now treating his younger brother. Listen to the text again and the order of words in the original text. “… For me you never gave so much as a young goat … but … you sacrificed for him the fatted calf!” That sounds very much like envy! “You like him better than you like me!”
An envious person usually deprecates those they envy, by minimizing their virtues and exaggerating their failures. “He has consumed your property with prostitutes!” he charges in his anger. But what he calls “your property” was actually the younger son’s property, since his father had given it to him. In the same breath he denies having anything, “you never gave me…” though the father reminds him that all that the father had was actually his to do with as he chose. And how does he know about the prostitutes? Has he been listening to gossip? Or is he simply guessing? As far as we can tell, he has not yet heard his brother making a full confession. But envy makes us blind to our own true state, and blind to the truth about another.
The medieval writer of the Faery Queene, Edmund Spenser[i], tells the story of 2 men who dwelt in a certain city–one had a reputation for being very envious, and the other a reputation for being excessively covetous. The ruler of the city sent for them, and promised them, that whatever either of them desired, would be given to him, on the condition that he who asked first should have what he asked, and the other should have the same, doubled. The envious man would not ask first, because he did not want anyone to have what he could not have. The covetous man would not ask first, because he was greedy and wanted more than the other. But finally the envious man reluctantly agreed to go first. He desired that one of his own eyes might be plucked out! He would go first so that his competitor might lose both of his.
The envious are often blind in both eyes and deaf in both ears! The Pharisees of Jesus’ audience had “eyes that did not want to see, and ears that did not want to hear” (Luke 8:9-10) which was also true of the older brother as well.
Down the centuries church leaders have often discussed the sins of the two sons of this father by referring to one or more of the so called Seven Deadly Sins. The younger brother has been charged with the sins of “Avarice”, “Lust”, “Gluttony” and “Sloth”, while the older brother has been accused of “Pride” “Anger” and “Envy”. It is time to examine the Seven Deadly Sins more closely
When the early medieval theologians began to plumb the depth of human sinfulness, they came to the consensus that all sins could be classified into 7 branches. They gave them the titles, “The Seven Deadly Sins”, “The Seven Mortal Sins”, “The Seven Capital Sins”, and noted that this seven-headed hydra was parent to every other act of sin.
What is intriguing about the 7 deadly sins is, that they find their classification being framed in the cloisters of the monasteries of Eastern Christianity in the 4th Century. They discovered that sin cannot be escaped geographically, for they found within the walls of the cloister, that sin was still pervasive and virulent. They discovered that vice continued to beset the monks, even as they sought for holiness.
Lest we have forgotten this catalogue of “Minister’s Sins”, “The Sins of the Clergy”, let me list them for you. Here are their Latin names and their English translation.
Superbia – Pride
Ira – Anger
Acedia – Sloth
Luxuria – Lust
Gula – Gluttony
Avaritia – Avarice
Invidia – Envy
This list of sins so gripped the attention of the medieval theologians that the list began to resound through the literature of the succeeding centuries. Chaucer in the “Parson’s Tale”, Dante in “The Divine Comedy”, and Spenser in “The Faere Queene” gave focus to them. Archbishop Peckham of England in the 1200’s ordered every priest who had the cure of souls to expound “the 7 deadly sins and their branches four times a year in the common tongue.”
Since that day, contemporary writers have returned again and again to this ancient catalogue of subterranean sins: these include Dorothy L. Sayers, C. S. Lewis, Psychologist Karl Menninger, Sociologist Stanford Lyman, Preachers like Billy Graham and Tony Campolo and Christian Novelist Elva McAlister in her novel Strettam. No longer are these 7 sins only the concern of the church. Even secular novelists and moviemakers have returned again and again to “The Seven”. Newspaper and magazines are increasingly aware that there is something rotten in Denmark, and find themselves paying attention to the seven sins that permeate humanity and all its works.
But I need to add a word of caution. This thing called sin is not a thing at all. These 7 are not 7 monsters that have a mind of their own that lurk beneath the tranquil surface of our lives. There are not 7 dwarves or 7 demons within human personality that pull the strings and make us do things we ought not do. We do not possess a higher nature and a lower nature (in spite of the NIV’s bad translation of the word “flesh”) that cause aberrant behaviour or good deeds. Sin is “a way of my relating” to the universe that is wrong. It is the misuse of my skills and energies for selfish ends.
One of the intriguing things about these 7 deadly sins is that every one of them finds its root in basic human nature as created by God. Look a bit more closely at the list.
- The need for sleep and rest and recreation is built into our createdness, but Sloth is a great perversion of that legitimate need in us.
- Woe betide the human race when good people do not vent their anger at sin and corruption, but that same Anger can be a terrifying passion when misused to defend only a wounded self.
- Self-esteem is vital. All persons need to feel valued and needed. But there is nothing uglier than an over weaning Pride.
- Because our bodies need energy to keep on running, the consumption of food is crucial. And because God gave us finely developed taste buds, the enjoyment of food is one of his great gifts. Yet, Gluttony is a thing repulsive.
- The gift of human sexuality is given, not only as a means of procreation for the extension of the human race, but it is also given with its attendant pleasure for the purpose of bonding two very dissimilar persons in a life-long relationship. But there are few things more damaging than the perversion of sexual love into loveless lust.
- The need to protect our bodies from the elements necessitates the procurement of shelter, clothing, food, transportation and other material supports. In our culture it takes money to procure these things. Nonetheless, Avarice is a great evil and causes global damage to the people and environment of our planet.
- To strive to better ourselves, to grow, to develop, to be all we can be, is built into our createdness. All of us are reachers for goals beyond our present attainment. But when that good drive is perverted it becomes Envy, the green sickness.
Any one of these seven can become our “Besetting Sin” or our “Upsetting Sin.” All of them break that “Great Commandment” of Jesus; “Love God with all you are, and your neighbour as much as you love yourself.”
[i] Edmund Spenser, The Faery Queene, 2 vols. Ed. G. W. Kitchin, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1877).