of Creighton University's Online Ministries
August 17th, 2011
Dennis Hamm, S.J.
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And we listeners to the parable, with our American sense of fair play, understand their chagrin. A person’s wages should be proportionate to his or her hours of work! And we can back this up by quoting Catholic social teaching on the just wage. However, if we are really paying attention, we finally wake to the fact that this is not an editorial about the just wage. It’s a parable! That is, it is a story using ordinary human experience to make a comparison with (or in this case a contrast to) a spiritual matter. Jesus’ and Matthew’s point is that the reality of the kingdom of God is not at all a matter of mere fairness. It is a matter of God’s gift, and our response. And it is also about the folly of making comparisons regarding God’s way of sharing those gifts. This comes through in the statement of the vineyard owner: “Are you envious because I am generous?”
That English translation is really a paraphrase. A more literal rendering is, “Is your eye evil because I am good?” The translators make a paraphrase because the reference to the evil eye is a cultural reference requiring explanation. In the folk culture of the ancient Mediterranean world, there was a belief that looking at something with envy could make someone’s eye evil, give it evil powers. To protect oneself from the evil eye one had to defend oneself by painting one’s door blue or by wearing an amulet. So the paraphrase is accurate. And the point is that I am an utter fool if, instead of rejoicing in God’s gift of grace to me, I make some conjectural comparisons with how God seems to be blessing others more than me. God’s generosity is way beyond our petty calibrations—a different economy entirely.
Understanding the folk lore about evil eye also puts us in touch with a valuable truth about envy. The evil eye tradition is more than superstition. It is based on the truth that an envious eye really does have evil potential. Envy, indulged over time, can eventually lead to theft, violence, and even murder. The best prophylactic against one’s own potential of developing such an evil eye, then, is simply gratitude for the gifts of God and the avoidance of foolish comparisons.
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