The Green-Eyed Monster

Posted on July 19, 2010


For many years I was deeply troubled by the parable of the prodigal son. As an oldest child, I probably identified with the oldest son, who styled himself as “the good one,” and I couldn’t see the fairness in the ending. Then some years ago (okay, some decades ago) my church made a movie of the story called, not surprisingly, The Prodigal Son. It wasn’t perfectly acted, but it was enough. My eyes were opened to two lost sons, and my own lostness. I did a lot of redefining “good” and “fair.”

Then Jeff Holland, an apostle in our faith, gave a wonderful talk entitled The Other Prodigal, in which he outlined many of my learning experiences in beautiful fashion. Here is a lovely quote:

This son is not so much angry that the other has come home as he is angry that his parents are so happy about it. Feeling unappreciated and perhaps more than a little self-pity, this dutiful son—and he is wonderfully dutiful—forgets for a moment that he has never had to know filth or despair, fear or self-loathing. He forgets for a moment that every calf on the ranch is already his and so are all the robes in the closet and every ring in the drawer. He forgets for a moment that his faithfulness has been and always will be rewarded.

No, he who has virtually everything, and who has in his hardworking, wonderful way earned it, lacks the one thing that might make him the complete man of the Lord he nearly is. He has yet to come to the compassion and mercy, the charitable breadth of vision to see that this is not a rival returning. It is his brother. As his father pled with him to see, it is one who was dead and now is alive. It is one who was lost and now is found.

Certainly this younger brother had been a prisoner—a prisoner of sin, stupidity, and a pigsty. But the older brother lives in some confinement, too. He has, as yet, been unable to break out of the prison of himself. He is haunted by the green-eyed monster of jealousy.2 He feels taken for granted by his father and disenfranchised by his brother, when neither is the case. He has fallen victim to a fictional affront. As such he is like Tantalus of Greek mythology—he is up to his chin in water, but he remains thirsty nevertheless. One who has heretofore presumably been very happy with his life and content with his good fortune suddenly feels very unhappy simply because another has had some good fortune as well.

It seems that the green-eyed monster is alive and well in otherwise healthy people, eating away at them like the parasite that it is, because envy never attacks who we envy, but ourselves. It’s alive in charitable organizations, which vie with each other for clients and compete for public opinion. It’s alive in public service organizations, in which staff are often more vicious with each other, ranking their relative commitment to the cause, than businesses are in competing for spending dollars. And it’s alive in churches, where we compete for righteousness and seem never confident of our own place in the kingdom unless it is superior to someone else’s. Envy takes a lot of energy away from more productive things.

Like a parasite, it doesn’t live on our skin. It’s out of sight, and just quiet enough to draw little attention to itself. It seldom makes a huge fuss, because if it did, we would do something about it. It merely rears its head occasionally and bites us, a little bit. Someone else’s child is recognized for something our child has been doing for quite some time. Someone else is given a responsibility when they are obviously not fully qualified. Someone else is viewed as good and kind and perfect, when you know there are things amiss in their life. (I know, the pronouns don’t agree, but we just haven’t figured this out in modern writing without being ridiculous.)

Elder Holland continues, “It has been said that envy is the one sin to which no one readily confesses, but just how widespread that tendency can be is suggested in the old Danish proverb,  ‘If envy were a fever, all the world would be ill.’ The parson in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales laments it because it is so far-reaching—it can resent anything, including any virtue and talent, and it can be offended by everything, including every goodness and joy.5

I was blessed to work with some wonderful women who were very diverse and who didn’t always see eye to eye … with each other, or with me. It was good experience and I love them deeply. We were spared, with some serious hard work at being spared, the worst ravages of the green-eyed monster, because we continually worked to remind ourselves that we were not rivals.

It is one of estrogen’s dirty little secrets, this rivalry. It is one of humanity’s dirty little secrets. Even apostles fussed over who would be leader when Jesus was gone, and why John should have a different wish granted than everyone else. Like e coli, the green-eyed monster lives within us, waiting for a time of stress or weakened immunity, to bite us, or maybe just to chew on us and make us miserable. The best defense is a good charity.

Nobody is our rival.

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