“Are you envious because I am generous?” Yes. I guess I am.
Jesus told a parable about a landowner with a vineyard who went to the marketplace to find day laborers to work. He hired a bunch, agreeing to pay the usual daily wage, and they went to work. Several times throughout the day, the landowner saw others idle in the marketplace and sent them to work in the vineyard, telling them, “I will pay you what is right.”
When the day ended, the final work crew was paid first. They were paid a full day’s wage, and when the first workers saw this, they expected they’d receive more. The first workers were paid the same as all the others and grumbled that those who were hired last were being “made equal to us” when they were a full day’s wage for just one hour’s work. The landowner responded that he had paid the agreed upon wage and asked, “Are you envious because I am generous?”
I am always struck by that question. I like the way it is worded, and I like the way it cuts to the heart of the matter. God is generous and that can be a problem for us. Sometimes I AM envious because God is generous. Maybe I want God’s generosity all to myself.
In the parable, the landowner goes to the marketplace where day-laborers get hired for the day. The workers are hoping to get a job that day, and along with it, wages that will feed their families another day. These are people living at the edge of subsistence. If they work, they eat. If they don’t work, they and their family will go hungry. By returning to the market and hiring additional workers throughout the day, the landowner is making it possible for those workers to earn a living. When he pays them all a full day’s wage, all the workers can feed their families. It is a powerful statement about generosity and care for those in the community. This kind of generosity appeals to me . . . most of the time.
There are also times when I grumble and complain like the full-day workers in the parable, especially when this kind of generosity is less abstract and closer to home. We may remember complaining, “it’s not fair” as kids when our siblings or other children in the neighborhood receive some advantage. I have vivid memories of complaining to my mom about the money my family spent to buy glasses for my sister. They didn’t need to buy me glasses. It wasn’t fair. My mom pointed out that while that was true, there were different medical costs that my parents provided just for me. We each received what we needed. Years later, that encounter comes to mind each time I hear “are you envious because I am generous?” Yes, I am envious for I still catch myself feeling that way sometimes.
Honestly, humans often are envious because God is generous. We want God to be fair, but instead, God is often unbelievably generous. God is sometimes so generous that it irritates us. When we are irritated it is because we’ve missed the point; God is just as invested in the other workers, and their care, as God is invested in us.
When we are able to step beyond what is fair and look for what is generous and what is loving, we are beginning to see the world like God does.