The famous renaissance artist, Giotto di Bondone, painted a series of frescos depicting the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. These can be seen in the magnificent Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto represented Envy as a woman with enormous eyes and ears which spread out to catch every snippet of gossip and everything that was going on around her. She also has a poisonous snake-like tongue, which coils back and stings her own eyes. The result is the blinding of Envy to the truth.
Now isn’t envy just like this image? From the time we were infants we kept our eyes open to see if anyone was doing better than we were. If our brother or our sister received more attention than we did, we would scream and shout until someone attended to us in the same way. Sadly, many of us grow up into ‘big babies’. Irrespective of intelligence or profession many adults are jealous of anyone who seems to do better than they.
But, of course, there are always exceptions to the general rule. Yesterday some of us we had the privilege of witnessing Sister Mary Benedicta’s Solemn Profession of Religious Vows; an act of generosity that could have only come from God. Earlier in the day I had the personal privilege of witnessing Sister Mary Benedicta sign her Last Will and Testament in which she disposed of all her worldly assets – to the poor – in accordance with Our Lord’s injunction for those who wish to follow him. Those of us who have made religious vows or a commitment to marriage will have been heartened by Sister Mary Benedicta’s response to God’s call to “Come, follow me”. May God bring to completion the good work He has begun.
All this in complete contrast to today’s gospel, in which the landowner acts in a way most likely to foment industrial unrest. He actually makes those who have worked all day watch the payout, beginning with those who had worked less than a tenth of it. As they welcome the generosity of the owner of the vineyard they look forward to receiving their own extra reward – a bonus. But their disappointment is intense and their resentment greater still.
It’s hard to overestimate the evil of jealousy. Jealousy was the cause of Our Lord’s death and the gospels tell us how Pontius Pilate asked the Jews if they wanted him to release Jesus: “for he realised it was out of jealousy that the chief priests handed him over.” The damage of jealousy goes further than the crucifixion and death of Christ. It actually undermines the effects of that death; for it sours the joy and gratitude to God who is the author of our salvation. We see this effectively in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder son is jealous of the welcome given to his younger, wayward brother. And so he refuses to take part in the celebrations that mark his brother’s return home.
In a nutshell, where there is envy and jealousy we can never be at peace with ourselves; or at peace with our neighbour; or at peace with God. And this is because where envy exists there is no generosity of spirit, no gratitude, no cheerfulness. Envy prevents us from doing real good and it prevents us from living with God.
Today’s first reading emphasises the distance between God’s way of thinking and our own: “My thoughts are not your thoughts”. Perhaps the truth of this is illustrated by our own thoughts as we heard today’s gospel. No doubt we had some sympathy with those who had laboured all day in the blazing heat and who received the same pay as those who came late to the vineyard and only worked for an hour.
Applying this to ourselves we may feel some resentment because, no doubt, we consider that we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat. We say: “How unfair that others should receive the same reward, and be paid before us”. If such is our attitude then we should beware! For when we really examine our labours in the Lord’s vineyard perhaps we will discover we haven’t done so much after all. And, indeed, perhaps we too, will have to depend for salvation on the excess of generosity of Almighty God.
Envy begins in us when we are small children. And it needs to be rooted out when we are young or it becomes more difficult to control later. Envy has been compared to weeds that grow with amazing speed and vigour each summer and chokes the other plants around it so that nothing else can grow. And yet, during the winter there’s no sign of it and we can be fooled into thinking that we’ve got rid of it; only to find that as soon as the climate is right again it reappears.
The only sure way to eliminate persistent weeds is to dig out the roots completely, because one tiny section left behind multiplies tenfold within months.
And so how can we root out the weed of envy? Well, one cure is to have a sense of humour. The ability to laugh at ourselves and to recognise our own weaknesses and foibles is the pre-requisite for accepting ourselves as we are. And when we have fully accepted ourselves in such a way then there remains nothing for us to be envious of.
Hand in hand with this acceptance of ourselves must go acceptance of the God who created us and who loves us just as we are, warts and all. Naturally speaking, there is so much about ourselves that we may wish to change. We may want to look more attractive, or be more intelligent, or be more humorous, or to have more friends. But such a person wouldn’t be the one loved by God who accepts us as we are and wants us to grow through the limitations and through the gifts he offers us. At the end of the day only the love of God can heal the self-inflicted wounds caused by the envy that eats into our hearts.