The pagan Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once wrote that there is an art to being generous. If people have the resources to be generous, they can do so without showing off, or making those who receive their largess feel belittled. The people who are truly generous are those who do not value money in itself, but only in as much as they can spend it usefully on others.
There is also an art to receiving. We can receive presents, a compliment, or help graciously. Or, we can be ungrateful and resentful. Even worse, we can resent the good things that come to others, and be eaten up with envy. That same philosopher, Aristotle, defined envy as “a kind of distress at apparent success on the part of one’s equals.” It is feeling “put out,” or even bitter at the good that happens to others, especially those close to us, or of the same group. The ancient world had a special term for this: it was called the “evil eye.”
In the early Greek translation of this week’s Gospel reading, at the end of the story the landowner asks the grumbling worker, “have you got the evil eye because I am generous?” Jesus lists the “evil eye” of envy as one of the things that come out of people to make them unclean. There was much superstition attached to this phrase, but in the New Testament it’s a vivid image for intense envy and resentment. This was thought to show itself in people’s looks, just as we might say “green with envy.” Our modern translation renders this as, “Are you envious because I am generous?” Not the same, but it gives some clarity.
So, we have the contrast of the generosity of the landowner and the envious reaction of the laborers. We might see the landowner as representing God, and the workers as the people of the Old Testament. The Jews had labored under the law of Moses for many centuries, and now that Jesus was also bringing in the Gentiles to be saved, some of them felt a certain resentment. St. Paul’s letters also show us that there were disputes between Jewish Christians and those who were converted from paganism. Such tensions would be natural in forming a new society. Maybe the parable is a warning against being blinded by such tensions. But I think it has a wider application than the early Church.
In the Gospel, Our Lord speaks about the kingdom of Heaven and compares the Father to a landowner who has a vineyard in which he needs laborers. The landowner goes out in the morning and offers work to those in need, he does the same in the middle of the day and toward the end of the day, offering a day’s pay to each person who works for Him. This is not meant as a treatise on labor relations; rather Our Lord wants us to understand that His grace is a free gift that He gives to each and every one of us. Therefore, those called to live as Christ’s disciples from a young age don’t enjoy a place of privilege over someone called to discipleship later in life. Rather, we’re given the grace that each of us needs to follow Our Lord and live as His disciples in today’s world. Envying other people’s money, fame, good looks or even spiritual gifts, does nothing except to corrode the character of the person doing the envying. Thinking about the gifts we’ve been given ourselves, and being grateful for them, is more positive and more gracious. We can also rejoice in the gifts that God gives to others. As members of the Church, we are all part of the same body, and therefore can share in each other’s gifts. So, rather than begrudging God’s generosity or moaning about what we don’t have, we should recall the words of Blessed John Newman: “God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do his work.”
So, what we do with the grace(s) that we are given? Do we use that grace to build up the kingdom of God on earth, so that we may attain eternal life in heaven forever? Or do we seek things of this world and ignore the grace that Our Lord gives us? I will pray for the latter because they need it badly.