For the folks at Gesu in Miami:
Today’s parable gives us, among other things, Christ’s own perspective on the vice of envy. When the landowner finally poses the question as Christ would pose it—“Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15)—envy suddenly strikes as faintly ridiculous. We almost feel embarrassed for the first-hour laborers. They have no leg to stand on. They are treated justly. The good fortune of the eleventh-hour laborers in no diminishes their wages. And the owner of the vineyard has every right to spend his money as he pleases.
Still, no matter how ridiculous envy appears from within this Gospel perspective, we also know how easily we fall into it. If we’ve ever criticized another to make ourselves feel better, if we’ve ever found ourselves sad or bored while someone else is being praised, if we’ve ever followed celebrity gossip pages just to take some comfort from their personal failures, then we’ve also fallen into envy. That is, we’ve felt sorrow at others’ good fortune, or satisfaction in their bad fortune.
A question arises: how do we tackle a vice like envy, a vice that’s more like an attitude, a tendency, a feeling? Today’s Gospel gives us some tips for 1) getting to the source of the problem, and 2) for correcting it.
1) The source: the parable suggests that envy is fundamentally a problem of vision. The landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (Mt 20:15), could be more literally translated: “Is your eye evil (ὀφθαλμός πονηρός) because I am good?” Modern languages also reflect this visual metaphor: “Envy” is derived from the Latin word meaning simply to “look upon” (in-videre).
The parable suggests, moreover, that the vision of the envious is distorted in a particular way; they view another’s good fortune as their own misfortune rather than as God’s generosity. And we all know why we react this way: deep down, we need to know that we are looked upon with love, that we are wanted, esteemed, important. We look for this affirmation wherever and whenever we can find it. This is simply how human beings are put together.
The problem begins when we see that human admiration has its limits. It’s like beachfront property–a scarce commodity. The public eye can’t be on everyone at the same time; if everyone were a celebrity, no one would be a celebrity; if every day were one’s birthday, birthdays would be meaningless. So, when we see others more talented or more successful, when we feel the admiration of our peers shifting toward them, we feel sad. If they are increasing, then we must be decreasing.
We might call this a problem of depth perception. What dominates the field of vision of the envious is not what is nearest to them. Rather, what looms largest is the unstable esteem of their peers. What dominates Christ’s field of vision, by contrast, is what is nearer to us than we are to ourselves: the Father, whose gaze is fixed intently upon each of his children. Christ’s perfect vision sees the Father delighting in us, seeking us at all times, going out five times a day, like the master of the vineyard in today’s parable, in search of the unwanted.
2) Correcting our envy, then, becomes a matter of allowing the true image of God to loom larger in our horizon. Of practicing his presence in prayer. Of enduring the intensity of his gaze day after day. Of contemplating Him contemplating us with delight. Not a few saints have described true prayer in precisely these terms. In his tips for getting more out of retreat meditations, for example, St. Ignatius recommends that
a step or two before the place where I have to contemplate or meditate, I will put myself standing for the space of an Our Father, my intellect raised on high, considering how God our Lord is looking at me.
St. John Vianney famously asked a peasant how he filled his long periods of prayer before the tabernacle. The peasant replied: “I look at him and he looks at me.” The saint left convinced of the authenticity of this man’s spiritual life.
In the end, envy withers away when we expose it to the light of God’s presence, when we learn to gaze upon His gaze, when we come to believe more deeply in His desire for ourselves and those around us. By doing so, we learn not only to see others’ success as God’s generosity (rather than our diminishment), but we also gradually fit ourselves for heavenly glory. In glory there will be no place for the sadness of envy. There God will finally fill our field of vision; we will finally see Him face-to-face.