Is Your Eye Evil Because I Am Generous?

 Is Your Eye Evil Because I Am Generous?

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

September 19, 1999

Scripture: Philippians 1:21-30, Matthew 20:1-16

Is Your Eye Evil Because I Am Generous?”

Jesus often taught in parables, and here we have one of his more enigmatic ones. He said he taught this way so that people might see and not perceive, might hear and not understand (Mark 4:12);
that is, his message requires the right attitude on the part of the hearer,
otherwise it makes no sense. Why should he teach this way? Well, he is revealing
God in his teaching and so the mode of the teaching corresponds to the nature of
God and to the way God impinges on our lives. On that premise the form of the
teaching tells us that God is not obvious, like a Hollywood joke, not loud like
a teenage party, not vulgar like a backslapping blowhard. God is subtle and
easily elbowed aside by the more strident information sources in our lives.
However, if we pay attention we shall hear nothing less than the words of
eternal life, words that unveil the nature of God and invite us into a right
relationship with Him. Let us therefore pay attention to the parable of the
laborers, so that we might understand and internalize the reign of God over our
lives and our world, and not be like those who listen but do not hear, who gaze
but do not see.

The reign of God in our lives is
like a man who hired laborers at different times of the day and when evening
came paid them all the same regardless of how long they had worked. If this had
been intended as a lesson in good labor relations the teacher is obviously a
fool. If it had been intended as a lesson in human justice the teacher is even
more of a fool. Since it is a fixed variable of our faith that Jesus is not a
fool the parable must be about something other than labor relations or
distributive justice. It is about God, God’s nature and God’s relationship
with us His human creatures. And what does it tell us?

It tells us that God is infinitely
good. The word I have translated “generous” in our text is in the original
“good.” I believe the context warrants the translation “generous” but
obviously generosity is a major manifestation of goodness. God’s goodness does
not come to us according to a time card; there is no minimum or maximum wage of
goodness. God’s goodness overflows like a glass of good wine when the host
just keeps on pouring. Plato argued that God was compelled by his overflowing
goodness to create the world, and the structural characteristic of this
overflowing goodness is that there is no envy in the divine. Envy, you say, what
has that got to do with it? Everything!

In this case Jesus agrees with
Plato. The employer’s rhetorical question, “Is your eye evil because I am
generous?” points straight to envy, for envy in the Mediterranean cultures is
described as the “evil eye.” The evil eye is the envious eye and envy is
widely recognized as a mortal danger. In some traditional cultures it is bad
manners to praise some one too much because that exposes him to the evil eye,
and if he falls ill after your praise you must go to him and insult him an thus
avert the evil eye. Jewelry possibly originated as an attempt to draw attention
away from the beauty of the woman, which arouses envy against the husband, to
the beauty of the jewelry. Flashing diamonds blind the evil eye and gold and
silver ornaments reflect the gaze back onto the gazer. Perhaps you recall the
story of the mythological Medusa whose gaze turned men to stone, and of how
Perseus killed her with a mirror. All this is the cultural expression of our
vivid human experience of envy, in ourselves and in others.

So the parable makes a simple point,
easy to see, very difficult to internalize. We are deeply envious creatures, and
the sign of this is that we for the most part deny that we are envious. We
naturally endorse the complaints of laborers who worked all day and got no more
than those who came at the eleventh hour. Why, because they did not get what
they were promised? No, they did get it. It is because the eleventh hour workers
received a gift and we instinctively resent the good fortune of others,
especially in a situation where it must be compared with ours. We do not like
other people to prosper especially in comparison with us. A UCC minister who
quit the ministry long ago told me he could no longer endure the position of
some members of the Council who insisted that no matter how feckless their
husbands were the minister had to be poorer that they. That is pure envy, and it
is spiritually fatal; it kills the soul and poisons the wells of life. So if you
want to know God and live in a relationship of abundant life you must escape
envy. How are we to do that?

We shall not achieve a generous
spirit by being generous; one can at the same time be generous at one level and
envious at another. Indeed, people often use their generosity enviously, as part
of the competition with others. In Woodside I’m sure there are those who want
to be known as more philanthropic than the next person; this competitiveness
explains why so many buildings and programs have people’s names on them. Jesus
said we are to give in such a way that not even our own left hands know what the
right hand is doing. So we shall not uproot envy by simply giving away money. I
wish I could tell you that as we enter the season of stewardship; give the
church money and it will cure your envy. Alas that is not so; the most such
giving might do is mitigate greed, and preserve a certain freedom, but envy,
that lies too deep for mere behavioral modification.

The so-called parable of the
laborers is really a parable of the employer, and the point of comparison is
between the employer and God. God is like that employer; if we want to know what
it is like to live under the reign of God, in the Kingdom of God, we must
imagine what it is like to work for a man like that. He is faithful and he is
kind; to everyone who accepts his offer of work he gives the same reward; the
only people who get nothing at all are those who refuse his invitation to go to
work because they prefer to sit around the market place wasting the time of day.
And when the final payday comes, the day of judgment and they get nothing they
will surely whine and complain that they are being unjustly treated, when in
fact they are reaping what they sowed, precisely nothing. But those who showed
up for work at all, even at the eleventh hour, receive the full reward of that
last great payday. So the parable is a call to faith in God; if we respond at
all we receive the reward; even if our faith is no bigger than the smallest seed
of all, the mustard seed, even if we show up at the eleventh hour.

It is worth remarking on the slice
of life from which Jesus draws his comparison. It is the world of work and
wages, of business and labor relations. It is the world of money. Clearly, Jesus
is in touch with the things that really occupy our minds and comprise our daily
activity; clearly this faith is not divorced from the real world in which we
live and struggle to make a living. This is significant, for it tells us to look
for the rule of God in our ordinary lives, in the home, in the office, in the
SUV, on the cell phone, on the internet, or on the road, in business breakfasts
and business lunches. Were he teaching today Jesus would draw his parabolic
comparisons from the lives we actually lead, because his God is present in those
ordinary lives as much as he is present in the “religious” culture that we
set aside for Him.

More interesting however is that the
chief player in Jesus’ vignette from commercial life behaves outrageously,
contrary to his own best interests and the long-term benefit of his operation.
He will get a reputation for unfair labor practices and unjust wage policies;
and that’s precisely the point; the reign of God is both like and unlike
ordinary human life. It is like it because God enters our lives as they are; it
is unlike it because God changes those lives when we allow him. In the case of
this parable the change promised is the cure of the deadly affliction of envy.

It is essential that we allow God to
change us because if we do not our envy actually increases. If we resist it
God’s generosity intensifies our envy. Perhaps that is why there is such
indignation even within the church against the Gospel of the grace of the living
God, who cannot be assimilated to our human explanations and interpretations,
even the categories of so-called spirituality.
The employer asks, “Is your eye evil because I am generous?” He knows
the strange fact about us that often the very example of a different way causes
our resistance to it. Because God is good to people we judge to be unworthy, it
can make our eye evil. So if hearing this message of the outrageous generosity
of God irritates you, it is better not to hear it than to hear and not
understand and so be damaged further rather than helped. 

The central point of the parable
remains inassimilable by us; there is no way we can humanly come to terms with
the injustice of paying the same wage to those who work 12 hours and those who
work one hour. So what shall we say? I shall say, “Thank you God for revealing
yourself to me; it is my greatest joy and deepest treasure to know you, and to
know that you are outrageously good and generous and loving, beyond what we,
left to envious ourselves, would have dared to imagine.”