If there is a demonic force at work in American society, it is the sin of envy. Envy? Not greed, not racism? Yes. Envy is more powerful than either greed or racism, because it is their source.
Envy is more than just wanting what someone else has. It’s the feeling that their having it in the first place is illegitimate, that their blessings diminish what you have. Envy is a cancer that eats the soul.
People have been asking rhetorically why Trump attacks black athletes and other African-Americans who defy him. It’s envy. It’s not that he wants their athletic prowess or success. It’s that he thinks they don’t deserve that success. It’s that Trump thinks a successful black man cheapens what he, Trump, has accomplished in his life (such as it is). Because in his mind, of course, blacks (and Hispanics, and women and…) are lazy and unproductive cheats gaming the system. So to hear them demand respect, well, that must just make his blood boil. They’re undeserving and ungrateful!
Trump isn’t the only one, of course. Envy is the source of rural and suburban white complaints about “those people” in the cities. They’re cutting in line, and it diminishes what we’ve done through the sweat of our brows! Envy is also the source of those who get so riled up over protests at football games. Those pampered athletes have never made a sacrifice in their lives, not like our brave soldiers and sailors! (As I’ve said before, there’s an authoritarian Cult of Sacrifice in our nation using cops and veterans to keep people in their place.)
None of this is new. It’s exactly what Jesus is talking about in his parable of laborers in the vineyard. Understand, the guys he’s talking about are all poor. They don’t have their own farms to attend, so they work at somebody else’s. They get up before dawn to make their arrangements, then work—hard, manual labor—all day until the hot sun goes down.
You think they’re pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right they are! You think you’d be pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right you would be! All the more so since the jerks who worked the least get paid first. Those who worked longest get their noses rubbed in it. Grace (because that is what we’re talking about, really) is obnoxious. So is God’s generosity.
Because of course this is no ordinary landowner we’re talking about. What owner does the hiring himself, instead of sending a servant? As well, the “vineyard” was a common image for Israel in those days, and the hiring additional laborers suggests it’s harvest time.
So the landowner has a point when he says to one of the laborers, “Friend, I did you no wrong.” The owner and the worker settled on a fair day’s wages, and the owner paid up promptly. Fair is fair. If the landowner should choose to piss away his money on slobs who only work an hour in the day, that’s his business, nobody else.
And thank God he does, because we’re all recipients of his screwball economics. Psalm 145:9 says, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Or as Matthew says earlier, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Ain’t none of us alive solely by our own efforts, ain’t none of us making ends meet or more only by our own hard work. We all get lucky at some point, or in Christian terms, we are all blessed by the grace of God. And none of us deserve it, because none of us are God’s equals. It’s a free gift out of God’s love for the world.
So none of us have any business getting envious. It’s like a baby crying foul because his mother also breast-feeds his brother. We are called to live in gratitude and the sure knowledge that there is enough and more than enough to go around.
It irritates the hell out of me to see Trump flags hanging around town, or Blue Lives Matter flags, or Ol’ Dixie on some pickup truck. But I never begrudge their right to protest, to be obnoxious. It’s a free country, and there’s enough free speech to go around. (Remind me sometime to grab pictures from the neighbor’s yard who draws swastikas on flags because America tolerates abortion.) But of course, if your ego is weak, and your sense of self is fragile because you know at heart your accomplishments are illegitimate…Well then, you might lash out, too.
But you, you live with gratefulness, with thanksgiving for what you have, not envy at what somebody else has. You live knowing that when the kingdom comes, the last shall be first, and the first last. We might not be able to do much about that awful man in the White House, but we can look to a better day that has been promised us. Amen.+ + +