Read James 3:13 – 4:6 to start.
Before I get to my topic for this morning, or rather as a lead up to it, I want to talk about stupid internet memes. Specifically, I want to talk about Tide Pods, and the eating of them. I wanted to bring one along this morning as a visual aid, but we don’t actually use them at home, and I was hardly going to go and buy a box of them to use as a prop. In short, Tide Pods, or for that matter other brands of laundry pods, have become popular over the last several years because they are really easy to use, no measuring required, just biff one of those puppies into your washing machine and away you go. The fact that they look like candy probably hasn’t hurt sales either. Of course, the fact that they look like candy is also a big problem, because when something looks like candy there is a temptation to eat it. About a year ago there was a trend of people posting videos of themselves doing the so-called Tide Pod Challenge, which involved a biting down on a laundry Pod and recording the results.
Like I said, this is a stupid internet thing. If you are old enough to post a video online, you are old enough to know that you shouldn’t put a Tide Pod, or really detergent or any type, in your mouth. That’s a dumb thing to do. Obviously you can consider doing that and decide that it’s not a good idea. But still, some people did think about it, and decided to go ahead and do it anyway.
You might be thinking that it’s probably no big deal, really, of course the soap is going to taste terrible and if you swallowed it you might get sick to your stomach, but it can’t be all that harmful. It’s not like the box has that menacing skull and crossbones symbol indicating poison. Well, just because something isn’t marked poison doesn’t mean it’s remotely safe. Tide Pods are not safe anywhere near your mouth, and I’ll explain why.
Simply saying that something contains dangerous chemicals isn’t really enough. So here’s an explanation. Laundry pods are made with several cleaning agents. One thing these chemicals do is allow water to bond with oils and fats. This is pretty standard for all soaps, it’s how soap and water cleans far better than just water by itself. There’s of course oil in your skin cells, and soap removes that, which is why your hands get dried out if you wash them too often. Now, laundry detergents are far more concentrated than the bar of Ivory you might use when you have a shower, but they won’t hurt your skin. That’s because there’s a protein called keratin, same thing that your hair and fingernails are made of, in your skin. But not all of your skin. No keratin on the surface of your eyeballs, which is why it hurts so much when you get shampoo in your eyes. The soap bonds to the delicate skin on your eyes, and actually starts to cause damage to the outer layer.
Guess what? Not much keratin in the skin inside your mouth, or inside your throat. You bite down on a laundry pod, that concentrated detergent coats the inside of your mouth, binds instantly to the skin cells, and starts destroying them. Effectively this is a chemical burn in your mouth. That’s going to make you start to gag and cough, which is going to just spread the detergent around more, draw it down your throat, or worse, into your air passages, which are even more vulnerable. You think soap hurts when you get it in your eyes? Try some high efficiency laundry detergent in your lungs and that stinging in your eyes won’t seem so bad by comparison. Eating a Tide Pod is a good way to end up in the hospital breathing through a tube. And that’s if you’re lucky, there are people who have died from ingesting one.
At this point you might be wondering why you just got a science lesson instead of a Sunday sermon. You probably didn’t need that warning. I don’t think that anyone here is likely go to home and serve laundry pods for lunch. So what does this have to do with anything, and in particular with the passage we read from James to start?
Tide pods look completely harmless. They are squishy and colourful and do not give off even a hint of menace. If you saw one for the first time, hopefully you wouldn’t be inclined to pop it in your mouth, but you would hardly imagine that it could kill you, or that it could cause so much damage. Laundry pods do not like dangerous, but they are.
In the verses we read to start there is a word that comes up three times, and it is very much woven into the theme of that passage. That word is envy. And envy is more like a laundry pod than you would think. We are familiar with envy, no doubt, but we probably do not think of it as being particularly dangerous. It’s not one of those go-to sins that raises red flags with everyone. It does not have the markers of immediate destruction as do anger and violence. It does not have the connotations of moral failure as does drunkenness or lust. It does not have filth or perversion or excess to point to as obvious calamities. If there is a spectrum of sins, envy is not something that we look at as being all that bad. We diminish it and consider it as a lesser evil. But that would be a serious mistake.
We should recognize without being told that envy is something to be wary of, that it is not a healthy choice. And that’s good, I hope no one is sitting here thinking that envy is just wonderful, that it is something they want more of in their life. We already know that envy is a problem. After all, it’s on the list of seven deadly sins that the Catholic church cautions of, so it’s not like this is some recent development to be worried about.
This morning, though, I want to look at exactly what is so wrong with envy and why we need to be on guard lest it creep in to our hearts and minds. Like snacking on laundry pods, we might know it’s a bad idea, but understanding the mechanics of the problem, knowing how it operates and the extent of the damage it will cause, hopefully that will encourage us to make wise choices.
What is envy? We might equate it with jealousy or covetousness, and certainly, it is a related emotion, a finger on the same hand as those, and while some people might use the words interchangeably, they are not really the same. Jealousy is more concerned with losing what you already have, whereas envy is a feeling resentful longing provoked by what someone else has. Greek philosopher Aristotle described envy as pain at the sight of another’s good fortune. When we experience envy, we look at what someone else has, whether that is a possession, an achievement, or a personal quality, and we wish that we had it instead and that they did not. We might be envious of someone’s car or home, of their good looks, of their relationships, of their success.
There are those would argue that looking at what someone else has can be inspirational, if your neighbour has a well-kept lawn, then that should inspire you to make sure to keep your own grass mowed and garden weeded. If you coworker got a raise, that should encourage you to work hard so that you’ll be in line for a promotion yourself. In a perfect world with perfect people maybe that would be the case, that we would all look at the people around us and aspire to their best qualities. But of course we do not live in a perfect world, and none of us are even close to being perfect people. So rather than pushing us to be better, envy instead has the effect of making us worse.
The word envy itself comes from the Latin word invidia, which means to look upon, or really more in the sense of look against, or look in a hostile manner, associated with the idea of the evil eye. It is not looking at someone else with admiration or appreciation, but rather with resentment and ill-will.
Despite envy being a malignant force, the world seems generally not terribly worried about it. and I’m not going to say that envy is in some quarters celebrated, much as greed was in the movie Wall Street, and indeed in many corporate offices and boardrooms, but the word is actually used as a brand. You can go to Staples right now and buy an HP Envy laptop computer, they aren’t cheap, I checked and they start at $1100. If the Latin word invidia sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because there’s a technology company, Nvidia, which makes graphics cards for video gaming and work stations, and yes, the name is taken from that same Latin word.
This is not specifically a Christmas sermon, but I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that we’re halfway through the month of December. If there is one month of the year when envy is going to be most evident, it has to be this one. The amount of money people spend on their Christmas decorating is outweighed only by what they spend on Christmas giving. Giving is wonderful, but when you see others who receive more than you do, it’s easy to quickly become envious and resentful. I recall as a child being satisfied and happy with what I got for Christmas presents, but then going to a friend’s house and seeing what was under their tree. Suddenly the perfectly adequate gifts I had received seemed lacking. This is hardly a unique experience, no doubt many of us have experienced exactly the same thing. It may be natural, but that’s envy trying to work its way in.
All the buying and giving and spending that we see, that powers our economy at times it seems, that does little to diminish the envy in the world. It serves rather to stoke and encourage it. The world is accepting of envy, and is not concerned with whatever harm it might cause.
The harm is considerable. In the passage we read in James, envying is used in conjunction with strife in verses 14 and 16 of chapter 3. And then in chapter 4 the cause given for all the turmoil, the wars and fighting described in verse 1, those are due to the desires, or lusts that we have. Not necessarily lust in the modern, sensual sense, although certainly that might be one of the problem items in play, but desires in general, when not realized, give rise to nothing but trouble. For that matter, desires often cause just as much trouble when they are realized. When we get what we want, that seldom makes us happy.
We don’t even need the Bible to tell us this. We can look around and see the mayhem caused by people who pursue their desires at any cost, and who gleefully run roughshod over anyone who gets in their way. The veneer of politeness and social acceptance, backed up by the rule of law, keeps this in check to a certain extent, at least in our present day and this part of the world, but that is not always and everywhere the case. We can look at history, or we can look at what takes place in war zones or in times of political uncertainty to see how quickly mankind reverts to basic and selfish interests. We may even be able to look, not at the world around us, but inward to see this. As James says in chapter 4, verse 5 Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy?
We are naturally inclined to look at others and resent them. We see it in the world around us, we see it in ourselves, I see it in my children. We don’t need to learn this particular behaviour, it comes quite naturally. It’s not something new, far from it. Let’s read a few verses from Genesis chapter 4 that illustrate the first example we have in scripture of envy in action.
1 And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD. 2 And she again bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. 3 And in process of time it came to pass, that Cain brought of the fruit of the ground an offering unto the LORD. 4 And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering: 5 But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. 6 And the LORD said unto Cain, Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen? 7 If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. 8 And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.
It’s a story we have no doubt heard many times before, no doubt from many different angles. There is the disobedience of Cain contrasted with the obedience of Abel, the stubbornness and anger, the pride in doing things your own way. But at the root of it all there is envy. The word may not appear in the passage, but the emotion is obvious. Cain sacrificed his fruits and vegetables, and while I’m sure they were lovely, they were not accepted. How much of that was because it was the wrong sacrifice, and how much was because his heart was in the wrong place, I do not know, but his offering was rejected, while Abel’s was not. He could have taken an instructive lesson from this, he could have looked at his younger brother and said “He did a good job, I can do likewise,” but he did not. Instead, his countenance fell. He was warned of God that should he not change his ways that sin was at the door, well, Cain opened that door and welcomed in the sin. His envy escalated, first to anger, then to resentment, and finally to murder.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a tragic progression to me. That’s the way it is with envy, it is progressive. If the envious person briefly looked askance at his more prosperous, more accomplished, more blessed neighbour, and then went on with his life, then we wouldn’t be half so concerned with it. But envy does not often occur in isolation. There is generally going to be something that follows, and generally that something is worse.
Obviously, the murder of Abel was something worse. There is not much which you could call worse than murder. But even that did not happen at once. We don’t know how much time passed between the initial refusal of Cain’s sacrifice and the death of Abel. It may have been days. It may have been weeks. It may have been, as I suspect, over a number of months. Regardless of the time, it was long enough for Cain’s fallen countenance to be noticed and for his bitterness to fester and grow. And while he acted on his envy in the worst way possible, we have no indication whatsoever that Cain ever repented, ever sought forgiveness, ever did a single thing to restore his relationship with God, or with his parents. What started as what we might term as mere envy caused strife, bitterness, and death.
While that is the first instance we find in scripture of envy, it is not the first that took place. In the book of Isaiah, chapter 14, we can read of an earlier account. 12 How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! 13 For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.
While the passage as a whole is directed against the king of Babylon, these verses are understood to be about the fall of Lucifer, ie, Satan. The pride here is evident, and it manifests as envy. As an emotion, envy is commonly powered by pride, for what more base reaction is there than to look at what someone else possesses and think “He’s no better than I am, why should he have that when I do not?”
That is what we see here. Lucifer, as the cherub who covered, as described in Ezekiel, had a most high and lofty position, but he felt it was not enough. He wished to be exalted further, to be like the most High. He looked at God and thought he could attain to the same perfection, that same magnificence. Pride, yes, but also envy, and there is an implicit wish to tear down, because God is unique. There is none like unto Him, holy and reverend is His name, and to seek to ascend to His level is bring damage and reduction to His glory.
Obviously we are not on the same level as the creator, none of us can be, as much as Satan might like to pretend that he is. Envy looks to push the envious person up, and if that should drag the other person down, so much the better. We can never be on God’s level, but maybe, just maybe, we can drag Him down closer to us. It’s a ludicrous notion, but that’s the thinking behind Lucifer and the fall. That’s the thinking behind the tower of Babel, a tower to reach up to the heavens. God must not be so far above us if we can reach Him.
The world looks at God in all manner of incorrect ways, but envy is mixed in with many of them. People rankle against God’s authority, against any manner of authority that comes down from above, really. How much of that is from resentment of power stemming from envy? We lack power, God does not, so on a subconscious level, there may well be envy there. People seek praise and glory, which are of course due to the Lord. Is envy behind it? And people desire love, they pursue it with abandon, when of course we know that God is love. Once again, is envy at the root?
We may think it foolish to say we envy God, but that is exactly what lead to Satan’s fall. He would surely have us follow in his foolish footsteps. Even if we don’t recognize even a hint of envy in our hearts, any time we think we can come to God on our own terms, proudly and defiantly, instead of with meekness and humility, that’s Satan cheering us on.
Sometimes envy of God is even more blatant. In John’s gospel, chapter 11, I’ll read a couple verses from there, this takes place immediately following the account when Lazarus was raised from the dead. Reading at verse 46 But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done. 47 Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. 48 If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.
The Pharisees, who studied and applied the law of Moses, and priests, who were of the sect known as the Sadducees, these two groups did not get along particularly well. But when they saw Jesus of Nazareth, whom they regarded as some upstart from a minor backwater, when they saw Him gain attention and acclaim rapidly, they became envious. All men will believe on Him, they said. That is not what they wanted, the people of Israel had long looked to the religious leaders, they had little choice to do so ever since the Romans had come and installed political leaders who were appointed at the Caesar’s whim. Now here was someone who undermined their authority and position with authority independent of them. He spoke with authority, and not as the scribes, we are told in both Matthew and Mark’s gospels.
The established leaders saw Christ, not as the Son of God, not as the long-foretold Messiah, but as a threat and a target. Left alone, they feared the people would turn to Him, and away from them. If the people were no longer following them, no longer listening to them, then what purpose did they serve? The Roman government, always pragmatic, would see the priests and Pharisees as pointless, and whatever power they had retained to this point would be lost. As well they feared that if there was a general uprising inspired by the arrival of the Messiah, Rome would crush Judea under its boot.
In this latter fear they were not unreasonable, for not forty years later there was a general uprising, although not inspired any Messiah, and Roman legions descended upon Judea, besieged Jerusalem, and destroyed the temple. Their place and their nation were indeed lost. But not because of Jesus of Nazareth. Their envy had long since made sure of that.
We know what happened next. The priests and Pharisees conspired to capture and try the Lord on trumped-up charges. This is detailed in all the gospels, of course, but I’ll read a few verses from Mark 15, because they show that the envy of the religious leaders was apparent to all. We’ll read at verse six, which takes place during the Lord’s trial before Pontius Pilate. 6 Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. 7 And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection. 8 And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. 9 But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? 10 For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. 11 But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.
Again, we know what happened next. No doubt Pilate offered up Barabbas as the most reprehensible choice readily available to him. He figured this was a slam dunk, no one was going to want to let Barabbas out of prison. But Pilate was wrong. He knew they had arrested Christ because of envy, but he did not realize just how deep that envy ran. And so the people opted for violence and insurrection instead of love and service. They asked for a rebel and a murderer rather than choosing the teacher who had fed the hungry, healed the sick, and raised the dead. There is no logic in that, no sensible, law-abiding person would want to see someone like Barabbas back on the streets. But driven by envy, that is who they requested, and that is who they got. Envy made a dangerous criminal a palatable option.
That’s what envy does. It escalates. I can’t imagine that the priests and Pharisees set out to release a murderer and to see an innocent man, the only innocent man who ever walked this Earth, put to death, but that’s where envy brought them. Envy, left to fester and grow, will always lead to something more. Maybe to anger, maybe to theft. Maybe that leads to conspiracy and murder.
Time fails me to look at the other examples in scripture that I had considered. We could look Simon the sorcerer of Samaria and his envy of the apostles’ power. We could look at Joseph and his brothers. We could look at King Saul, and how his envy of David’s fame lead to repeated attempts on David’s life, to at least one attempt on his own son’s life, and eventually to the slaughter of the majority of Israel’s priesthood, including an entire town with women and children because one priest had unknowingly aided the fugitive future king of Israel. How’s that for escalation?
Now, none of us is likely to ever envy in such a manner that it leads to mass murder. Maybe our envy takes a different path, and instead leads to bitterness. That might not sound as bad, and the consequences may not be so dramatic, but they are no less destructive. Bitterness, that retention of anger and resentment, it’s like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.
Like the laundry pods mentioned at the start, envy may not appear harmful, but it certainly is. It is not without consequences, serious ones. Maybe we will envy and suffer none of the troubles that we have seen thus far. That doesn’t mean we are in the clear, though. When we look with resentment at our brother, our neighbour, our friend, or even at a random stranger who possesses something that we do not, it can benefit us nothing. And when we envy and desire the things of this world, we will not be quick to seek after God and after righteousness. What will we seek instead? Remember, as you seek, so shall you find. When we envy, rather than fulfillment, we will instead find disappointment, discontentment and strife. That is no way to live. That is no way to follow God.