Worm of the Soul

Wednesday of the Second Week in Lent: Jeremiah 18:18-20, Matthew 20:17-28.

Today’s readings show the ugliness of jealousy, which St. Cyprian of Carthage calls “the root of all evil.” After examining the readings, I’d like to reflect on St. Cyprian’s Treatise on Jealousy and Envy, which offers some sharp insights.

The Jews in Jeremiah’s time were tired of hearing his gloom-and-doom prophecies. In the Book of Jeremiah, we read of how his no-holds-barred warnings and criticisms land him in prison, get him beaten, and make him an outcast. Today’s reading shows the inner mindset of the Jews who wanted to discredit and destroy him: “Come, let us contrive a plot against Jeremiah … let us destroy him by his own tongue; let us carefully note his every word.” What provokes such evil in the hearts of his countrymen? Jeremiah wonders as much himself: “Must good be repaid with evil that they should dig a pit to take my life?”

Jealousy (contemporary), Yvonne Wright | Image from pixels.com.

There are many ways to react to a person who proclaims something upsetting. We can ignore them. We can disagree, perhaps loudly. We can silently listen to their harangue and think about it over time, seeing if there is any truth to it. Or, we can allow our passions to grip us and lash out. If we allow negative passions like anger to build, we begin to desire retribution in a more lasting way. This is the work of evil.

But another sin may be in play in Jeremiah’s case, specifically jealousy. He is getting attention with his troubling prophecies, and the other priests and Jews are not liking this seeming power he is garnering. If jealousy is at the heart of Jeremiah’s adversaries, we can begin to understand how elaborate plots might develop. Jealousy is such an ugly sin that we never want to admit that it grips us. It’s embarrassing because it is such a strong sin, stripping us of everything elevated and good in character. Because it is ugly and embarrassing, we keep it hidden; we plot and the festering evil builds.

In the gospel, Jesus quickly identifies this sin erupting among the apostles and stamps it out before it can grow. When the apostles learn of James and John’s desire to sit at Jesus’s right in heaven, they “became indignant” and undoubtedly jealous. Jesus’s response is that while leaders in the Gentile world operate by having authority lorded over others, “it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave.” Jesus must re-orient them to the goal of the Christian life: to serve and thereby inhabit and spread the love of the Father. The entire discussion of greatness and deservedness to sit at the Lord’s right hand is upended. If greatness is defined by being the best slave, then that’s a silly thing to be jealous over. In fact, as soon as you start serving people out of love, the idea of being regarded for one’s own greatness is absurd.

And so we must ask ourselves what came over the mother of James and John (and them) when the request was made. The three of them are operating under a different mindset than Jesus’s teaching. She wants her sons to be great (and by extension, herself). As Christ points out, in the secular world this greatness comes at the cost of others — one is exalted above others, in fact the only way to know that one is exalted is by seeing others lower than you in status. This entire worldview relies on envy of that exalted status. People are motivated by jealousy over that position, even if it is currently unoccupied. This type of “greatness” will never be aligned with God’s self-giving love because at its heart is inequality and envy. This is precisely why Jesus must die in a mode of sacrifice, showing that glory resides not in earthly exaltation above others. He shows that glory can reside in the most detested and shunned of places: the Cross. This is the only world where greatness and God’s love can coexist: where greatness finds itself residing in servitude and sacrifice.

So as we peel back the layers of motivation behind the persecution of Jeremiah and the yearned-for elevation of James and John, we find the ugly sin of jealousy. We also find this squarely at the heart of the Sanhedrin in their arrest, trial, and Crucifixion of Jesus. Today’s readings are a warning, pointing to the dangers of jealousy, which hides in the motivations by which we live out our lives. Lent is our time to root it out and stop it.

Modern icon of Saint Cyprian, provenance unknown | Image from pilgrimcenterofhope.org.

Saint Cyprian, Doctor of the Church, Bishop of Carthage and Martyr, was an African born of noble birth around the year 200 AD. Son of a Roman senator, he was a dissolute pagan in his youth, although well trained in rhetoric, philosophy and law. He converted to Christianity in his middle years. He went to his own beheading willingly in 258 AD after refusing to recant his Christianity during the persecutions of the Emperor Valerian. In his Treatise on Jealousy and Envy, he traces jealousy to Satan himself, “when he beheld man made in the image of God, broke forth into jealousy with malevolent envy— not hurling down another by the instinct of his jealousy before he himself was first hurled down by jealousy, captive before he takes captive, ruined before he ruins others” (4). This sin, therefore is so powerful that it overcame the devil himself and is associated with the core of his own evil. “Thenceforth envy rages on the earth, in that he who is about to perish by jealousy obeys the author of his ruin, imitating the devil in his jealousy” (4).

St. Cyprian traces how jealousy is at the heart of tragedies and figures throughout scripture: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, King Saul and King David, and finally Christ and the Jews. Then, he proclaims that jealousy is, in fact, the source of all the other evils:

It is the root of all evils, the fountain of disasters, the nursery of crimes, the material of transgressions. Thence arises hatred, thence proceeds animosity. Jealousy inflames avarice, in that one cannot be content with what is his own, while he sees another more wealthy. Jealousy stirs up ambition, when one sees another more exalted in honors. When jealousy darkens our perceptions, and reduces the secret agencies of the mind under its command, the fear of God is despised, the teaching of Christ is neglected, the day of judgment is not anticipated. Pride inflates, cruelty embitters, faithlessness prevaricates, impatience agitates, discord rages, anger grows hot; nor can he who has become the subject of a foreign authority any longer restrain or govern himself. By this the bond of the Lord’s peace is broken; by this is violated brotherly charity; by this truth is adulterated, unity is divided; men plunge into heresies and schisms when priests are disparaged, when bishops are envied … (6).

We have heard the more memorable, “money is the root of all evil,” but is not money just a vector for envy? Cyprian has some memorable phrases of his own; I particularly like “nursery of crimes” and how jealousy removes our ability to “restrain or govern” ourselves. He has several great phrases at the start of the next section: “what a gnawing worm of the soul is it, what a plague-spot of our thoughts, what a rust of the heart, to be jealous of another, either in respect of his virtue or of his happiness … to make other people’s glory one’s own penalty” (7). Cyprian really brings home how jealousy is primarily a harm to our own selves, our own humanity. He says this even more forcefully: “Yet you are the enemy of no one’s well-being more than your own … Wherever you may be, your adversary is with you; your enemy is always in your own breast; your mischief is shut up within; you are tied and bound with the links of chains from which you cannot extricate yourself; you are captive under the tyranny of jealousy” (9). 

Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (detail), 1545, Angelo Bronzino | Wikimedia Commons. This figure in the background of the painting is often thought to be Jealousy.

This does resonate, at least with me. Even just from my adolescent jealousies over love interests, jealousy threatened to be overwhelming. It definitely seemed to act like a tyrant; and a tyrant harming me and my character more than anything else. With this in mind, I think about contemporary secular credos I hear from friends, “as long as I’m not harming anyone else, then it shouldn’t be anyone’s concern.” Do we really want to ascribe to this thinking? Don’t we want to help people who are being ruled by the gnawing worm of the soul, the tyrant of jealousy? We are called to bring others to God, and there is no room for someone to move toward God if they are ruled by jealousy. Our love of others and charity should move us to help people overcome their jealousies and envy. So, if they are just harming themselves and not others, it really might be our business and mission as Christians to bring the light of Christ into their lives.

But, it’s certainly enough for us during this time of Lent to try to identify the sneaky, hiding currents of jealousy in ourselves. Christ gives us many teachings like that in today’s gospel reading to help us overcome jealousy specifically by making it irrelevant. I think that it most cases, jealousy thrives in a worldview that is secular and driven by desires of this world.

Let’s close with some words of encouragement from St. Cyprian: “Tear out from your breast thorns and thistles, that the Lord’s seed may enrich you with a fertile produce, that the divine and spiritual cornfield may abound to the plentifulness of a fruitful harvest … let all bitterness which had settled within be softened by the sweetness of Christ” (17).

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