“Is your eye evil because I am good?” –A literal translation of Matt 20:15b.
Sometimes Bible translators have a tough call to make. The second-last verse of today’s Gospel reading is a good example of that (Matthew 20:15). The New American Bible version, the one U.S. Catholic churches use in the liturgy, translates that one this way: “Are you envious because I am generous?” It’s what the landowner says to the workers who are angry when, and the end of the day, he pays them no more than what he paid to the workers hired on at “eleventh hour”—namely, a denarius, the usual pay for a day’s labor, the amount they agreed upon when he had hired them that morning. Understandably, those who had borne the heat and burden of the day resented what they perceived as the unfairness of the landowner’s generosity to the late hires. And the landowner says, “Am I not free to do as I wish with what is my own. Is your eye evil because I am good?”
To our North American, 21st-century ears, that’s a pretty mysterious saying. So you can see why the translators rendered it as they did: “Are you envious because I am generous?” And that is the basic idea. But I love the cultural background to the “evil eye” talk. You see, in the ancient Middle East, and even today in some places, they thought that the eye of an envious person actually becomes in some sense actively evil, capable of doing harm to the ones who came under the gaze of a person with such an envious eye. (That is actually reflected in the etymology of an older meaning of the word “invidious” as “envious”; you can guess that the video root has something to do with looking.) That sounds like a silly superstition to us. But think about it. The gaze of a really envious person really is a potentially harmful thing. A sufficiently envious person can really get invidious and may act it out by stealing from or injuring the person he envies. That’s what gives the literal statement of the landowner a particular punch that gets lost in the translation. The full-day workers, with the contracted, just wage in their pockets are so resentful about the unexpected generosity of the landowner that their have become dangerously envious, and the landowner tells them as much straight to their face. The parable may even have tricked us into sympathizing with their resentment.
And what’s the point? Well, if the parable’s introduction is to be taken seriously—“The kingdom of God is like . . .”—then the landowner likely represents the ultimate “landowner”—God. And the surprise ending drives home the point that the generosity of God far outstrips our petty human sense of “fairness.” The divine fact is that everything does indeed belong to God and our share in God’s creation is pure gift, nothing we earn. Once we let that really sink in and allow our lives to be motivated by thanksgiving for that generosity, we can get over our fussy comparisons of ourselves and others and avoid the nasty rivalries that lead to the “evil eye” of resentment and the kind of endless and irrational desires that can lead to violence.
From the evil eye of envy, deliver us, O Lord.
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