Envy, An Ugly Sin

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Thursday of the Twelfth Week of the Year I
Genesis 16:1-12, 15-16

The painting of Hagar in the wilderness is by Giovanni Lanfranco. It hangs in the Musée du Louvre. It depicts Hagar in Genesis 21:16-17. Wearily, she turns her head and, in disbelief, sees the compassion of God in the face of the angel sent to console her.


Life is messy

One hardly knows whom to pity more in today’s First Reading: Sarai who is growing old in bitterness and sterility or Hagar who becomes the object of Sarai’s abuse. Caught in the middle is poor Abram. He wants to please Sarai and comfort her and, at the same time, surely felt something for Hagar, the mother of his child. Life is messy.


Sarai is eaten up by envy. Envy is one of the seven capital sins. It is a root sin that produces a number of poisonous offshoots. What is envy? It is sadness at the sight of another’s goods, opportunities, talents, or advantages. Envy itself may lurk below the surface but it comes out in sarcasm, in bitter comments, in nasty criticisms.

The Diabolical Sin

Saint Augustine saw envy as the diabolical sin. “From envy,” he says, “are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbour, and displeasure caused by prosperity.” How does one if one is harbouring envy in one’s heart? If when another person is praised or acknowledged you feel a twinge of displeasure, it is rooted in envy. If when another person is given opportunities for personal growth, education, or travel, you feel resentment, it is rooted in envy. If when another person shows the ability to do something well, you can resist the temptation to snipe and criticize, it is rooted in envy. Envy is an insidious sin. In community life it can be deadly, especially when it goes unconfessed and when there is no repentance for it.

Recognition, Repentance, and Confession

Priests with a long experience of hearing confessions will tell you that envy is a sin rarely confessed. Why? Surely not because no one commits the sin of envy! Envy is not confessed because it is not recognized. It is not confessed because there is no repentance for it. Saint John Chrysostom says that one committing the sin of envy is “engaged in making Christ’s body a corpse.” Surely, a frightening description of the sin!

Just Go Away

Sarai’s envy cause her to become so abusive that Hagar runs away. This is what the envious person really wants: that the other should just go away, disappear, get lost, drop dead. The Catechism says that envy can lead to the worst crimes. Sarai doesn’t kill Hagar in a bloody way; she eliminates her by making her life unbearable. There is no mention of Hagar taking her child with her. She is obliged to leave her baby behind. Hagar becomes a woman on the run, without a home and without security, like so many homeless abused women in the bus stations and shelters of every big city. Abram looks on helpless.

The Spring in the Wilderness

At this point the story takes an unexpected turn that I find intriguing. Hagar stops by a spring of water in the wilderness. The angel of the Lord finds her there. (I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman by the well. She too was running away from something.) The angel addresses Hagar: “Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8). He asks this not because he doesn’t know the answer but because he wants Hagar to look into her own heart. Hagar answers: “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai” (Gen 16:8).

Return and Submit

Then comes the angel’s astonishingly reply: “Return to your mistress and submit to her” (Gen 16:9). This is not what Hagar wanted to hear. God asks of her this hard thing, this impossible thing. “Return and submit.” Hagar could have replied, “Surely, you are joking. You cannot be serious. You’re not sending me back to that miserable shrew?” But she doesn’t say that. She listens. She is silent. She inclines the ear of her heart. And she obeys. The angel makes a wonderful promise. “Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has given heed to your affliction” (Gen 6:11). Ishmael means, “God hears.” The whole scene is strangely reminiscent of Saint Luke’s account of the Annunciation. And Hagar, the slave girl, in her obedience, in her trust in the word of the angel, is a figure of Mary of Nazareth, the handmaid of the Lord.

The Angel’s Word

God understood why Hagar was compelled to run away. He sent his angel to minister to her by the spring. The angel’s word to her was a hard one. God’s messengers deliver, more often than not, not the message we want to hear, but rather, the message that, if accepted, will be for our healing and redound to the glory of God. Are we ready then, to turn around, and to submit? Each one holds the answer to this question in his heart.


You must have been reading my comments on other people's posts - since I feel this speaks to me!

I'm a cesspool of sin!

Thanks for this excellent post!

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About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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