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Overcoming Envy / Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 20:1-16

‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’

There was a woman, Marion Webster from a little village in the great country of Wales, who woke up one morning and found her beautiful garden absolutely decimated. Someone or something had torn it to shreds.

The first thing Marion did after finding her garden in such a condition was to march over to her neighbor’s flower bed and pull out all the pansies and roses and anything remotely resembling a beautiful plant. Her neighbor’s garden now looked as bad as hers. Why did she do such a horrible thing? You won’t believe it.

Marion was convinced that her neighbor had grown so jealous of her beautiful garden that she’d trained a squirrel to destroy it. And that was Marion’s immediate reaction: If Marion couldn’t have a beautiful garden, her neighbor couldn’t have one either. Isn’t that both hilarious . . . and sad?

Our theme for today is overcoming envy. Jesus told a parable about a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard, a common practice in rural communities in some places even today. Those he hired, he agreed to pay the standard wage for a day’s work. Three hours later he saw that he was going to need more laborers if the work was going to get done. And so, he returned to the marketplace and hired some more workers. About noon he again found it necessary to hire more workers, then again at three o’clock, then again at five. Quitting time was six o’clock. At six, he had his foreman line up the laborers to be paid. He began with those who had worked only one hour. And he paid them for a full day.

Watching this were those who had worked since six in the morning. Wow, they thought to themselves, If he pays them a full day’s wage for working just part of a day, think how much he will pay us! When their time came, however, they also received the standard wage for one day’s work. They were furious. They had worked all day and they were receiving the same amount as those lazy guys who had worked just one hour. It wasn’t fair.

Let’s pick up the story in Matthew’s own words: But [the landowner] answered one of them, Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous? Then Jesus added this cryptic phrase, So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

This parable, which is unique to Matthew’s Gospel, can be approached from many directions. For example, we could debate the fairness of the owner of the vineyard. Or we might debate whether this man’s solution to his labor problem is a little too close to socialism to be applied to a capitalistic society such as our own. Certainly, the people who had worked all day had a point. It wasn’t fair. But consider the question that the owner of the vineyard asked, are you envious because I am generous?

Envy or jealousy, sometimes used interchangeably, is a major problem in many people’s lives. The workers in the vineyard were happy with their wage until they discovered their co-workers were getting a far better deal. Then they were angry. It has always been so. Sometime go through the Bible and count the many times people are said to be envious or jealous, and how much havoc they rendered because of this deadly state of mind.

For example, as early as the first chapters of the Bible, we read the story of Cain and Abel. Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering, fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. (Genesis 4:3-5).

You know the result of Cain’s envy. He murdered Abel. This was his brother, but he killed him out of envy. Is there any emotion more basic to our nature than that of jealousy of another’s gain? Is there any emotion more deadly?

Or there’s the story Joseph. Joseph was thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by his brothers because, among other things, they were envious of what? That’s right, his coat of many colors.

Then there was King Saul’s envy of David. Remember how David came to the battlefront and volunteered to go fight against Goliath. Remember how David slew Goliath. And as he came back from the battlefield, the women sang, and a sickness began to grow in Saul’s heart so much so that you read in the Old Testament that Saul spent the rest of his life tracking down David in his attempt to kill him out of the anger and jealousy in his heart. The stories of the destructiveness of envy in the scriptures are legion.

Even in the New Testament we read about Herod who killed every baby that was born in that region because he was so envious of any would-be rivals who might come to the throne.

The same envy is displayed by the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son. It isn’t fair that my younger brother should receive a welcome like this, when I have stayed home all these years in my father’s house, and I have never received a party like this one. Wa-wa-wa—the green-eyed monster—envy, jealousy. I want the same that you have and I will never be happy until I have received it.

People ARE getting ahead of you. All the time. While you’re at your desk, people working out at the gym are getting ahead of you. While you’re at the gym, your co-workers are getting ahead of you. If a friend gets a promotion at work, she has gotten ahead of you. If a colleague reads a book you haven’t read, he has gotten ahead of you. While you’re reading this book EVERYONE is getting ahead of you. The beauty of the concept is that it can be applied across the board, anywhere, anytime. For example, on the road, drivers of more expensive cars have gotten ahead of you, etc. Does this sound familiar?

And thanks to social media this situation is only getting worse. The Internet creates a networked world that allows everybody to compare everything, instantly. How much money are you making compared to people your own age who graduated from the same college you did? How many words does your baby know versus millions of babies her exact age, around the world? This ability to benchmark yourself in seconds creates an epidemic of comparative anxiety, a national wave of insecurity. Of which I am guilty

And it’s not only the young who are tempted by such comparisons. A study was made asking people if they would rather have a $400,000 house on a street where all the other houses are $100,000, or a million-dollar house on a street where all the other houses are two million dollars. People chose the $400,000 house, even though it was lower in value than the million-dollar house, because they wanted to be better than their neighbors.

I hope I’ve given you a sense of how inescapable this problem is and how destructive it can be to human relationships. But what can we do so that we’re not tempted to covet something that someone else has or is?

The first step is to recognize that envy and jealousy do exist, and they can be destructive to our well-being or even could cause us to harm in some way the person we envy.

The composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein was once asked which musical instrument is most difficult to play. He answered, second fiddle. I can get plenty of first violinists, but to find someone who can play the second fiddle with enthusiasm, that’s a problem.

Every one of us is exposed daily to people who have something we would like to have. It might be a larger house or perfect children or perfect teeth. The list contains all kinds of things that people can envy, even subconsciously. In all kinds of atmospheres envy can flourish.

In “The Wizard of Id” comic strip, one monk is putting up a sign on the bulletin board in front of the church while another monk watches. The sign reads “Thou Shalt Not Covet” and the visiting monk says, “Boy, I wish we had a signboard like that at our church.”

That’s funny, but it can happen in the choir, a Sunday school class, a committee meeting, anywhere. We need to understand that envy is a devious strategy the Tempter uses to divide us and to delay the coming of the Kingdom of God. Envy or jealousy can arise anywhere, even in church.

The second step to deal with envy is to develop a strong attitude of gratitude for the things we do have. Most of us are wonderfully blessed. If we daily counted our own many blessings as the old hymn advises, then we would spend less time envying the blessings that our neighbor possesses.

By the way, if you’re a person who has been blessed more than the average person, you should guard against flaunting those blessings.

A group of mountain climbers set out to conquer a mountain. Among them was one with no experience climbing mountains. For several hours they climbed. Once they got to the top of the mountain the first-time climber stood straight up with arms raised and yelled, I did it! As he celebrated a strong gust of wind almost blew him off the mountaintop. It was then that the more experienced climbers explained to him that when you get to the top of a mountain you never stand straight up, but rather you drop to your knees to avoid being blown off the mountaintop. Good advice in almost any situation in life.

The third step to dealing with envy is to realize that some of the happiest people in the world have a servant attitude toward life. They actually take pride in seeing others succeed. In fact, they may even work to help others succeed.

What do you do when someone comes along who shines more brightly than you? Do you pray for them? Encourage them? Or do envy and fear get in the way? Some of the happiest people in the world take pride in the success of others. They are the encouragers. We have them here in our church. People who serve Christ by putting themselves in second place in order to ensure there is harmony in the body of Christ.

That’s how you overcome envy. Recognize that envy can be a problem in your life. Develop a strong attitude of gratitude for the things you do have. And pray for those you’re tempted to envy.