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The Generous God and the Evil Eye (sermon)

September 20, 2014

Matthew 20: 1-16Evil_Eye

 

The kingdom of God is like a sower planting seed, or like the seed, or like a king dealing with his servants or today like a surprising example of employment relations.

 

Jesus is full of metaphors to describe the ‘realm of God’s rule’. That fact alone is interesting. It’s interesting that he needed to use strange images. Images that took time to understand. Images that stretch the world as we know it. He was someone with an imagination which is far from tamed by reality. Someone who is being constantly misunderstood and yet whose parables and teaching lured people on, puzzled them, surprised them. If you’ve got the parables all sorted then you probably haven’t thought about them for very long. Jesus uses parables because his God is a strange God and his kingdom is a strange kingdom.

 

So just when you thought you were free from politics… Jesus tell us a story about employment relations… sorry folks but this is the gospel for today!

 

As I read it, it occured to me that you could read this parable from the left or from the right.

 

You could say that according to the parable the kingdom of God is best expressed by an employer who gives everyone an equal standard pay – what the parable calls ‘the usual daily wage’ regardless of how much work they have done. A living wage perhaps? The kind of socialist utopia that might encourage everyone to turn up late for work perhaps? No incentive. From the right this scenario seems deeply problematic. Those who have worked all their lives to make ends meet and get ahead and put bread on the table, end up in the same situation as those dole bludgers who haven’t worked hardly at all and arrive at the end of the day.

Or you might, on the other hand, look at this parable in terms of rates of pay. If you think of it that way the employer in fact gives everyone a completely different hourly rate. Blatant inequality. In terms of the labour they do some end up being paid very highly – like the bank CEO $1000 an hour or so for looking after money – and the disability care worker on the minimum wage for looking after people all day. From the left this scenario could look equally problematic. The one who starts work in the morning on effectively a low hourly wage can see only blatant inequality.

Either way it’s unfair. The kingdom of God is unfair.

 

The left talks a lot about inequality. The right talks a lot about incentives. Important issues though these are… Jesus has a different perspective altogether.

 

For Jesus the landowner is a model of generosity – since the story is about the kingdom of God we might say that the landowner is God. And there is nothing in the story about the landowner needing labourers… we take that for granted… but in the story the landowner goes back to the market place and finds people ‘standing idle all day’. The landowner is not so much addressing his own needs here… especially as the day gets nearer evening… as he is concerned about the people with nothing to do. In Jesus take on the story its all about the generosity of the landowner. The key phrase comes at the end. “Are you envious because I am generous?” In the Greek it is “Do you have an evil eye because I am generous.”

 

For Jesus underneath the issue of unfairness there is a deeper issue… the issue of envy, the issue of the evil eye and its relation to the generosity of God.

 

In the story the generosity of God creates havoc. But Jesus places the problem clearly on the side of the disgruntled workers not the employer. The problem is not the unfair employer, the problem lies in the perspective of the employees

 

What does it mean, asks Jesus, to live with a generous God?

 

What about the God who makes the rain to fall equally on the just and the unjust? Unfair, sure, but generous!

 

Let’s think about the heart of God’s generosity… The place where we see it most clearly. Here’s a clue… it’s not the rain.

 

What about the God who does the work of redeeming the world, suffers the consequences and brutality of human violence, lives among us for our sake, in order to reconcile us to God and gives us the generosity of forgiveness? Jesus…, if you think about it, (if we were to put Jesus in this parable) Jesus is the worker who was up at the break of day, doing all the work, so that we might, late in the piece, share in God’s work in the world. If we are in this story of the generous God, it is as those who turn up afterwards and get to share in the benefits.

 

The sheer generosity (the bible calls it grace) of God unsettles the world. In this case the workers develop what the story calls the evil eye. Rather than see the generosity of God for what it is, they see instead what their neighbour receives and somehow they see someone less deserving of generosity than they are. We may have arrived late on the scene… but it turns out there’s always someone who catches our attention who has arrived later than us and is less deserving of generosity than we are.

 

Rather than responding to generosity with a generous attitude to those we are tempted to consider less worth of generosity than ourselves… we start to worry that they are getting more than they deserve.

 

The evil eye, sees the neighbour rather than the generosity of God. It seems to me that we live in a world governed by the evil eye. What would happen to marketing if our world was not driven by envy? What would happen to our constant need to upgrade our cellphone and thus to grow the economy? According to the evil eye, we need a car appropriate to our social group and our suburb. We need the right kind of clothing and housing for the same reason. A thinker called William Cavanaugh likes to point out that we are not materialists… we are not attached to material things. We let go of one new thing the moment the next new thing that our neighbour has or our television reminds us we need. What we want is constantly on the move. And this evil eye keeps the economy running and growing. Envy at the heart of the marketisation of all of life.

 

It’s human nature you might say.

 

But the point about parables of the kingdom… is that Jesus seems to believe that human nature can change, that the kingdom of the evil eye might be surprised by the generosity of God. Jesus believes that human nature can change. That’s unusual! St Paul agreed with Jesus on this. “If anyone is in Christ… there is (present tense) a new creation”.

 

Jesus finishes with the comment that ‘The first will be last and the last will be first’. He could be interpreted as saying simply that the current inequality will be reversed. That those who have the world’s wealth now will be poor and vice versa. Same situation, different people in power. Or he could be saying something much deeper with this revolutionary statement. It could be that the generosity of God will so transform human nature that both the rich and the poor will become generous as God is generous.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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