Is your eye evil because I am generous? (Matt 20.15)
Jesus warns against the Evil Eye in these verses, nazar or hasad so common throughout the Middle East. This parable is about the destructive power of envy. But what is envy, and why does it make our eyes evil, according to this parable?
1. Envy arises from perceived injustice, but Jesus is redefining justice!
It’s not fair! This story grates with everything that we understand about fairness and justice. And yet, Jesus has said that this story is about “whatever is just” (20.4). For Jesus, it seems, justice is not about fairness but about lifting the shame of the men waiting in the marketplace to be chosen. Jesus pays them what is just, not what is fair.
2. Envy can change me from happy to angry through comparison
The first group were happy because they were chosen to work for a denarius, but later angry because of other peoples’ stories (I was happy that I got a 10% raise, then angry when I found out my friend got a 50% raise)! Comparing yourself with others is not wise, everybody’s story is different.
And yet the classic Western, individualistic answer of “ignore everybody else and just focus on me and Jesus” is inadequate too! The master intentionally makes the first group watch the last being paid. He wants to expose their envy in order to confront it. Hidden, buried envy is toxic too. Jesus’ strategy, as so often in discipleship, is expose to confront. He puts you in a place where you will envy the grace given to others, in order to deal with it right down to its rotten root!
3. Envy is a ‘religiosity’ response of the deserving towards the undeserving.
The deserving turn the Evil Eye upon the undeserving. The Jewish leaders are angry at the tax collectors and sinners who are ‘entering the kingdom ahead of them.’ The first disciples maybe felt angry at Paul, who turned up at the eleventh hour after they had borne the “heat of the day” – the cross and ensuing persecutions. Matthew’s Jewish church was envious of the Gentiles, coming into grace without having paid the dues of history and tradition and the Law. Deserving insiders are always envious of eleventh-hour outsiders. Let’s beware, because we are the insiders now!
4. Envy is grace’s greatest enemy.
This parable is about grace. The master keeps walking into town in the heat of the day to employ more labourers. He should have sent his foreman (20.8), but he went himself. Back and forth five times along the road. Unthinkable for a Middle Eastern boss! This is Christology – God didn’t send a servant he came himself in Christ!
The men were gathered there waiting to be chosen, and every time they were overlooked, their sense of dejection and hopelessness and shame increased. They would normally have gone home by lunchtime, but they are ashamed to go home to their families without having had work to do. Shame has castrated and immobilised them, they are trapped.
The master goes himself to invite them, to give them dignity (not charity). Even at the eleventh hour, shame can be completely dispelled. They have meaningful work and money for food. This is a sweet story about grace for shame…
And then envy comes and sours it! The clanging dissonance of the Evil Eye spoils the beautiful melody of the master. No wonder it angers him so!
5. Even envy will be redeemed for God’s final purposes.
This story is left with an abrupt open ending, “Get out of my sight!” What happens next? Do they repent and reconcile? It’s up to us!
Envy is a great theme throughout scripture. And yet, somehow, God is able to redeem it for good in his final purposes.
Joseph’s brothers attacked him because of envy (Gen 37.11), yet God meant it for good!
The Jewish leaders killed Jesus because of envy (Matt 27.18), yet God meant it for good!
The Gentiles are coming into the Kingdom, in order to make Israel jealous (Rom. 11.11, 14) that this envy might be exposed and confronted, leading to repentance and reconciliation.
And thus the last shall be first, and the first last.