Service, not Envy
Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year. Fr Richard Finn shows how the example of Christ enables us to overcome destructive envy.
Most of us have a strong sense of what we’re owed. Parents know how quickly children acquire an eagle eye for who gets what. The petulant cry goes up: ‘it’s not fair’! The trouble with the young child’s sense of justice is that she or he has no sense of context, of different needs, different capacities. Nor do they often know the difference between what they are owed, and what is simply an unmerited gift. Young children can find other children’s birthdays hard going because the presents aren’t coming their way.
Our Gospel reminds us that our entry into the kingdom of God is a pure gift, nothing we have merited. God owes us nothing, had no need to lavish on us the love manifest in Jesus Christ. At times, perhaps times of illness or misfortune, we may try to bargain with God, to strike a deal and expect God to agree and play fair. Yet God can never be caught in our narrow frame or calculus. We cannot grasp His providence, and should not pretend to do so, except where He of His freedom has revealed it to us. God has freely entered into a covenant with Israel, and in the passion of Christ has struck a new covenant in His blood; but He had no need, no duty, to come to our rescue.
This should teach us, warn us, to look honestly at our jealousies, and at the envy we have for other’s gifts. That’s never easy. Isaiah bids the evil man to abandon his thoughts, but how do you do that? Jealousy and envy may not be things we like to admit even to ourselves; they are not high up on the list of sins we usually confess; but in part for that very reason they are often a potent force within us. The Jewish Scriptures realized their importance when, in Genesis, Cain murders Abel, because it is Abel who offers an acceptable sacrifice to God.
Well, perhaps one way in which as Christians we are to overcome envious and jealous thoughts is by cutting at the roots of competition and rivalry through contemplation of God’s goodness. Each of us is profoundly, perfectly, loved by God, and variously gifted by God. The variety of the gifts is not a measure of the love we receive, but indicative of the diverse parts we are to play in the building up of God’s kingdom. To refer back to our Gospel parable, the denarius is the love we each receive. We really need nothing more.
What about the different hours worked? We can think of these as the gifts that are exercised, and some of these are indeed easier or harder to use well. For they are never given for ourselves alone. They are to be shared responsibly for the good of the community, and that can be challenging to say the least. Yet, how we recognise and deploy these gifts is the worship we offer back to God in thanksgiving for receiving them in the first place. That’s why Paul, in our second reading, is caught in a dilemma. He wants to be with Christ, and yet he recognises that in Christ, loving Christ as he does, even his very life is not his own. It is for others in Christ. Our prayers are but one important part of this whole-hearted worship of God in a fully human life.
here is a great mercy here. Not only is it harder to be envious of someone if what they have is a gift with which they serve us all. In the generosity with which we bring our gifts into play we manifest something of the Lord’s far greater generosity towards us all. The German philosopher Nietzsche attacked what he thought was a weak, slave mentality in Christianity; but he could not see the power, the liberation, there might be when serving others cuts at the roots of our potentially violent rivalry. And when Jesus says in St Luke’s Gospel, ‘I am among you as one who serves’, He speaks not just of an example to follow, but of His presence in those who do so follow His path of discipleship. That’s the greatest gift.
Picture: Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet by Ford Madox Brown (public domain)