Matthew 20: 1-16a
Envy is a major problem in today’s society, and it shows no signs of abatement. We are accustomed to a very high standard of living compared to that which our recent ancestors enjoyed, and yet we never have enough. No matter how well a person or a family is doing financially and socially, there is always another rung on the ladder that we gaze upon from afar and want to attain. “Keeping up with the Joneses” in an ever more consuming way is part and parcel of the American scene.
We even seem to have exported this vice to developing nations more quickly than we export productive ideas and life-saving innovations. In parts of the developing world smart phones are more common than childhood immunization shots or safe sources of drinking water.
Envy can be a powerfully destructive force in one’s spiritual life as well: wanting to see a person “put in their place” or refusing to offer forgiveness to a person who has wronged us are two common bitter outcomes of spiritual envy. Desiring not only that we might succeed but that another might also fail is an appalling sin in the eyes of God. The scriptures we will hear at mass this Sunday speak to the point of spiritual envy or jealousy, and condemn it in unequivocal terms.
First, the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God’s ways and thoughts are far beyond our own, and that we must be humbly willing to see his gracious hand at work in the lives of those for whom we may not feel natural sympathy—and we must imitate his reconciling generosity toward them!
Next St. Paul tells us “to me life is Christ, and death is gain” (Phil 1:21). These are hard words indeed, but they can snap us back to our senses when we have been beguiled by excessive worldly success and remind us that “we have no lasting city here, but we seek the one that is to come” (Hebrews 13:14).
People who are envious are always pre-occupied with the visible and tangible things of life, and tend to forget what is abiding and eternal. In his letter to the Philippians Paul teaches us that the only life which will bring definitive joy and peace is one focused on Christ, and through his presence in our lives all of our other sources of happiness will be brought into even higher relief.
Moving on to the Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard is one of the most powerful that Christ preached, since it so clearly exposes the envious way in which most of us, (alright, all of us), think at times.
The workers who responded early in the morning to the possibility of a day’s wages are not upset at the landowner’s generosity—until they discover that they will receive the same wage as those who came late to the scene. They fail to see that the Lord of the harvest has been just with them and generous with the latecomers.
Going further, we modern day hearers of this parable often fail to understand the point: that the Lord has been more than generous with all of us, granting us the gift of salvation in Christ which is completely free and unmerited, whether one welcomes it early in life or at the eleventh hour.
If we make an honest examination of our consciences the words of the owner of the vineyard will pierce us as well: “Are you envious because I am generous?” May we live our Christian faith seriously enough that we will not be envious of those to whom much is given—or forgiven—by the Lord, for with him “…the last will be first, and the first will be last”.
Fr. Edward Mazich, O.S.B.