The next three Sundays are a season of transition. We begin to mention the “L” word. It is not Lent yet, but it is time to begin that spiritual inventory that provides the foundation for the Lenten fast. The Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (the gospel, Matthew 20:1f.) highlights a timeless spiritual stumbling block; the tendency to compare ourselves with others. The all-day laborers were not unhappy–until they discovered that others were getting the same pay for less work.
The main point of the parable is that salvation can’t be quantified. You can’t have more or less of it. Whether you have been a believer all of your life or come to faith at the eleventh hour, you will receive the gift of salvation. However, this equality of reward necessarily means that God deals with us unequally. All who put their faith in Jesus will be saved. But among those of faith, some are rich and some are poor; some die young, while others live to a ripe old age. Some are subject to great tragedy, while others seem to skate through life unscathed. Some believe all of their life. Other come to faith near the hour of death.
Sometimes we are only too aware of these distinctions. When the risen Christ appeared to the disciples by the sea of Galilee, he told Peter that when he was old he would be bound and taken where he did not want to go. What was Peter’s concern in response? He pointed to John and said, What about him? (John 21:18-22).
Peter and John are constructive examples. Faith was a struggle for Peter. In one moment he was pulling out a sword to fight for Jesus; in another moment he was denying that he knew him. Things seemed to go easier for John. He was the beloved disciple, near Jesus at the Last Supper and in death. Each would be given his own spiritual path. Peter would die as a martyr, head down on the cross. John would spend time in exile, but would be the only apostle not to be a martyr. God allotted to each of them what each needed to progress to maturity–and what God allotted to each was no business of the other.
The tendency to compare sneaks into our lives. In prayer, we confess our sins and are reconciled with God. We get a sense of what God is doing in our lives. We see how he is working in all things for good. We see how he is helping us deal with our besetting sins and cultivate new virtues. We are thankful for our blessings. We are content. But then we go out into the world and begin to look around at what God is doing in the life of the friend, the co-worker, the acquaintance or, worst of all, the enemy. We begin to ask the cancerous questions. Why does she get to do that? Why does he have all those things? Why do I suffer more? When our attention was focused on God, his forgiveness of “my” sins and his providential ordering of “my” life, we were content. The discontent began when we started to compare the good that God has given me with the good God has given to another.
This is the deadly sin of envy. It is demonic in origin. The tradition tells us that Satan was created as a glorious angel. However, he became envious of the more glorious, eternally begotten Son of God. His own glory was not sufficient because of another whose glory was greater. The devil tempts us to think in the very same way.
God rejected Cain’s offering and Cain was angry (Genesis 4:3-8). God said, in essence, “Why are you angry? Correct your error and you will do well.” Had he focused on himself and his own sin, Cain might have done the necessary spiritual work of repentance. But Cain looked at Abel, whose offering God had accepted, became envious and killed him. Our envy is often rooted in our own sin. We envious of the righteous person because his presence reminds us that we are not righteous.
Envy is a motive for sin throughout the Bible. The son of Jacob were envious of Joseph and sold him into slavery. Saul was envious of David and tried to kill him. The Jewish leadership was envious of Jesus and handed him over to be crucified. We see obvious examples of envy in sports. Athlete A signs a ten million dollar contract and is content, until the following year athlete B signs a twelve million dollar contract. Athlete A can no longer be happy because he envies another. We rightly criticize and, even, laugh at this–until we realize that we do the very same thing every time we become unhappy because someone else has been given more.
Envy is based on the devil’s economy in which life is a zero-sum game. All compete for the scarce commodity of what is good. If you have more, I necessarily have less. Thus, I must begrudge you your good, for it means there will not be enough for me. In the economy of God’s grace, there is more than enough for everyone. The good that God gives to you does not detract from the good that God gives to me. There is more than a sufficient supply of what each of us need to be fulfilled and content.
Comparison is also rooted in the lie that happiness is based on our possessions, status or appearance. If this were true, the most happy and contented people would be the best looking people with the most money and status. But these are not the most happy and contented people. These are, often, the most envious and discontented people. The more you have, the greater is the temptation to compare.
The truth that Jesus teaches us is that contentment and true happiness come from our relationship with God. If we know Christ; if our sins are forgiven and we are reconciled to God, we have the really important thing. Through the presence of Christ in our lives, we learn, as Philippians says, “in whatever state I am to be content” (4:11). If we are in need, we learn to have greater faith. If we have enough, we learn to be generous and thankful. If we are called to serve, we learn to serve as unto the Lord. If we are in authority, we learn to exercise that authority for the good of others.
In the epistle (1 Corinthians 9:24f.), St. Paul describes the Christian life as a contest. It is a contest, not against other people, but against our spiritual enemies, the world, the flesh and the devil. As we strive towards the goal of Easter, we must always bear in mind how our Lord responded to Peter’s question about John. “It’s none of your business. You follow me.” On the Day of Judgment, God will not ask us how we compared to someone else. God will ask us, simply, were you faithful with what I gave you? Were you faithful in the circumstance in which I placed you? Each of us is called to trust that God is doing his will in “my” life through the various trials and blessings he has prepared for me without worrying about what God is doing in the life of another whose trials seem lighter and blessings greater. As St. Paul says “Run in such a way that you may obtain the prize.”