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Giving God the Evil Eye (St. Matthew 20.1-16)


“Giving God the Evil Eye”
Rev. Philip G. Meyer, Pastor Emeritus

St. Matthew 20.1-16

09 February 2020


Salvation is a gift from God. St. Paul makes clear that we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” [Romans 3.24-25a].

Today we have another vineyard parable, one directed not at the religious authorities but at Jesus’ own disciples. In context, Jesus was confronted by a rich young man who asked about eternal life. As he went away sadly Jesus told his disciples how difficult it is  for a rich man to get into heaven, using the image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Comparing himself to the rich man, Peter remarked:

“See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (Mt 19:27).

Peter envisioned more. Jesus’ answer flows into our parable:

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. [Mt 19:28–30].

Hang on to that very last sentence. Jesus will invert it at the end of this parable.

This parable is not about economics nor labor and management. It focuses upon God’s generous grace and mercy and how he dispenses it to sinners. We give God the evil eye when we see that others get the kingdom without having put forth as much effort as we have. We see it as unfair, and so we revert to the merit system because, in our sinfulness, we want to be compared against others instead of against the Law. The Pharisees and scribes grumbled when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners [Luke 15.1-2]. The Twelve argued about who was the greatest in the kingdom [Matt. 18.1ff.]. The mother of James and John asked Jesus to let them sit on his right and left in the kingdom [Matt. 20.20-28]. All of them believed that they had earned more than the rest.

They gave God the evil eye. Where am I getting this term? The ESV, like other translations modifies the literal text because it doesn’t sound right to our ears. The KJV and the NKJV render it literally:

‘Or is your eye evil because I am good?’ (Mt 20:15).

“The evil eye” has the flavor of envy, to look at something with the intent of getting it for one’s self. Those who worked in the vineyard longer cast the evil eye upon Christ for his grace to all, especially for those who worked only one hour.

“What do we get out of it?” is what Peter asked, and that brings up another question: Is God fair? It’s clear that Peter and the others were looking for gain in the coming kingdom of God. The Twelve were always jockeying for favorable positions, elbowing each other out of the way. If God were fair, no one would get heaven; we would get only eternal death and punishment.

Envy and covetousness are the main sins here. We give God the evil eye when we see what others have. That’s envy. It infects even those in the church. Why do some suffer while others do not? Why do some receive more earthly blessings than others? Why hasn’t God blessed all of us with equal income? Politicians talk about “income inequality” as though this were something that envious human beings can solve! How ironic that politicians comprise what can rightly be called the “ruling elites.” Nobody leaves Congress a pauper, yet they claim to be all for the “little guy,” those who have the least. Yet, the little guy continues to get the short end of the stick! “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation,” warns the Psalmist [Ps. 146.3].

Envy takes many forms. The elder brother in the parable popularly known as The Prodigal Son shows us how envy seizes a person and warps him. The elder brother complains about what his prodigal brother gets from their father while he sees himself as the one who should get the estate. He’s clearly unhappy about his place in life once little brother comes home.

“Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” [Luke 15.29-30]

Our sin, too, is envy. When it comes to the Kingdom of God we suddenly turn into eagle-eyed observers of heaven’s economy. We definitely believe in a quid pro quo when it comes to eternal life, just like those who were hired first! We treat eternal life as though it were a business transaction and Jesus has been flagrantly unfair to us!

It’s all about grace, not one’s work record in the kingdom, yet those of us who have spent our whole adult lives serving in the Church might seem to be worthy of more in the kingdom. After all, we pastors have spent countless hours, days, months, and years working for Christ. And perhaps some people would might agree that we should be at the front of the line when the rewards are handed out. But we’re not. We’re last. Paul says succinctly of those in the Ministry, “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all . . . We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” [1 Cor. 4.9, 13]. We pastors are last in the parade. We do not lead it.

An illustration from Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt might shed some light on our thinking. This play, which I read in undergraduate studies, is entitled The Visit. I’m summarizing it and leaving out certain elements not suited for this occasion.

There was a woman who had been married to an abusive, alcoholic husband. For years she suffered from his drunkenness as well as his verbal and physical abuse. She dragged him home countless times from the taverns. She suffered from his chronic infidelities until he finally left her. Even though she tried to get on with her life, things didn’t seem to work out because she was consumed with hatred for how this man had ruined her life. Even though she married again, she also divorced again. And again and again. Her whole existence, when she dared to admit it to herself, had one purpose, namely, to live long enough to either take revenge on him or, at least, live long enough to see him get what he deserved. But then this man who had so utterly ruined and embittered her life repented and stopped drinking. Christ found him. He had forgiveness and eternal life. She, however, could not let go of the past. She resented him even more that he got into heaven at the very end. He was an eleventh hour convert and she had born the heat of the day. He didn’t get what he deserved. The merit system had broken down totally.

Here’s the point of comparison: God’s grace is more lavish and generous than we can comprehend. It isn’t based on merit. Christ has earned forgiveness for all. Christ has earned it, not us. It’s a gift. Given! Gaining eternal life is not a matter of how long you have stood in line nor is it how much hardship you have endured nor is it a business transaction as the first workers thought. Do we Give God the Evil Eye? Sadly, that is our sin, a sin borne of envy. You can’t be looking at your neighbor with an envious eye and hope to hang on to God’s gift. It will slip out of your grasp as fast as a slippery noodle.

It is hard to stomach that some notorious sinners get into heaven at the very end while we have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day. So, what shall we do? First, repent of our sin of envy, of giving God the evil eye, and then receive his Absolution.

Second, rejoice in God’s generosity in Christ. Rejoice that Christ has saved even them!Christ’s atonement is the entry price. He gave himself into death as the propitiation for your sin. It is the same price paid for every person in this world. “He died for all,” wrote the Apostle Paul [2 Cor. 5.15, 2 Cor. 5.21], even for those who come into the kingdom at the 11th hour or the last minute.

“Father, forgive them” [Luke 23.34] prayed Jesus from the cross, not only about those who crucified him physically, but about all humanity, also for you and me! And there is the breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness, even to those who come at the last moment, even a thief crucified with Jesus, a man who minutes before had reviled him. There is forgiveness and salvation for every repentant sinner no matter how grievously he has sinned.

“What do we get out of it?asked Peter [Matt. 19.27]. It should be joy! If the holy angels rejoice over one sinner who repents [Luke 15.7], dare we react differently? Rejoice that God has had mercy on all! Joy must come from love. God doesn’t look at the amount or severity of our service. We dare not throw that back in our Lord’s face! In fact, the humble service which comes from love of God is his delight, the giving of a cup of water in Christ’s name, or similar things that no one notices. Yet, even these do not deserve more acclaim or higher status. “We have only done our duty” proclaims Jesus about humble service. [Luke 17.10]

Our reaction to God’s incredible generosity must be joy over our Savior’s never-ending grace and love. In the kingdom no one justifies himself by what he has done or endured. There is no jealousy nor envy, no self-serving arrogance at having worked harder or endured more than those who enter at the last minute. We all arrive by grace. On his death bed Martin Luther said, “We are all beggars.” This is certainly true!

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus has inverted what he said earlier. When you come into Christ’s kingdom doesn’t matter nor how much you have endured or suffered. Only the grace of God in Christ matters. And that must be the cause of our rejoicing!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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