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Envy or gratitude?
Fall is upon us! The Cottage is celebrating turning leaves and sweater weather with an autumn equinox surprise subscription offer: THE PUMPKIN SPICE SPECIAL!
New subscribers (and those upgrading from free to paid) receive an extra 10% off a regular yearly subscription (which is already a really good deal). You can use the extra cash to put toward a Pumpkin Spice Latte (everybody’s favorite drink to hate). This offer is good ONLY until OCTOBER 4 (St. Francis Day).
Today is the fourth Sunday in the Season of Creation, a short liturgical season that runs from September 1 to October 4 attending to the spirituality of creation and a theology of the environment. During this time, Christians and those of other faiths are encouraged to read the Bible with our hearts attuned to the Earth and its inhabitants and our hands ready to participate with God in co-creating the future.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard.
When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.
And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘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.’
But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Are you envious because I am generous?
Those words fly like arrows from the page to my heart. Of the seven deadly sins — pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust — envy is my secret and, admittedly, most shameful companion. Writers are prone to it, constantly weighing ourselves and our work against others, nursing wordy dissatisfaction in our souls.
I wish that weren’t true — it is hard to confess. But, having lived more than a few decades now, I know myself pretty well.
Envy is not jealousy. Jealousy is a kind of protective impulse. One is jealous if a lover seems inappropriately attentive to another. You might be jealous to guard your reputation against attack or jealous in defense of familial honor.
Envy is resentment, a passionate spite that can become cancerous hostility. Joseph Epstein, in a brilliant little book, called envy “a self-poisoning of the mind, envy is usually less about what one lacks than about what other people have.” Envy grows from rivalry — when we are unable to see our own gifts without comparing them to the gifts of others. Capitalism thrives on envy. Envy drives marketing and advertising, is the emotional engine of influencer culture, and elevates some humans to god-like celebrity so that other, lesser beings might, eventually, dash them on the rocks for the fun of it.
And there is Jesus, wandering through Judaea with his followers, teaching them in parables. Shortly before he told the disciples this story, they’d encountered a rich young man. “What must I do to be saved?” Jesus said, “Go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you shall have a treasure in heaven, and come follow me.” The young man went away sadly; he was jealous for his wealth and possessions. Jesus turned to his friends, and said, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to enter in through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”
The disciples looked at him, astonished and shocked. They asked, “How then can anyone be saved?” But I suspect they were secretly pleased. Who, after all, really likes the idea of Elon Musk going to heaven?
Jesus pivoted from that encounter with the words, “But many who are first will be last, and the last first,” to this parable — a story of a rich landowner who does something good with his money and is met by his workers’ grumbling, ingratitude, and envy.
It is amusing to think of Jesus praising a landowner who pays all his workers the same while sounding vaguely like Karl Marx — "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" — in one of the New Testament’s greatest take-downs of capitalism. But, ultimately, the workers who showed up early in the day don’t inspire admiration. They resent that the landowner has given everyone the same wage. And they begrudge the workers who showed up late: Why them? Why not us?
There it is: envy. Jesus didn’t even have to put the word in the landowner’s mouth because it is so obvious. The disciples who, just a short time ago, might have secretly rejoiced when Jesus sent the rich guy away, now find themselves on the back foot. Surely they identified more with workers being treated unjustly than a landowner sharing his cash with abandon to those who showed up late. Why them? Why not us?
“I am not being unjust to you,” the landowner said, “did you not agree to this wage? Take what is yours and go; but I wish to give to the last workers what I also give to you.”
I’ve always wondered why the lectionary doesn’t pair this text with the story of Cain and Abel, because I’m convinced the disciples would have immediately thought of it. Theologians may argue about the sin committed by their parents, but few disagree about this violent tale of sibling rivalry. The elder brother, Cain (whose name in Hebrew folklore meant “acquisition”), envies his younger brother, Abel, when the LORD favors the younger’s offering. Cain is furious and full of rage. Why him? Why not me?
The LORD says, “Why are you angry?” and reminds Cain that the terms of the offering are the same for both siblings — “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” He sounds not unlike the landowner in the parable.
Are you envious because I am generous? I did as I did, it wasn’t unjust to you. If you do well, you will be accepted, just like your brother.
Jesus left his story open-ended. We’ve no idea what the resentful workers did upon leaving the vineyard. Did they take their wages, now with grateful hearts instead of anger? Did they go and beat up the late workers and take what they believed was theirs? We don’t know. We’re left to guess. Jesus’ final — and predictably ambiguous — word on the tale is: So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
But there is no guessing about Cain and Abel. The older brother, the one who was first and always wanted to remain so, acted on his envy: “Cain rose up against his brother, Abel, and killed him.”
The story, where the last’s offering is accepted before that of the first brother turns into the first slaughtering the last. Envy to rage to murder. No wonder it is called a deadly sin. That’s the path.
Since the beginning, rivalry has fueled death. Envy is a murderer — of our own souls, of others, and of the possibility of communion and community. Envy drives us to have more, to take what we think we deserve, to beat others at the game. God may promise provision, that each one sit under the vine and fig tree, but we can’t enjoy the abundance of our own vine without wanting our neighbor’s vineyard. Envy destroys our capacity for gratitude — and fixates our being on that nagging, horrible question: Why them? Why not me?
Dorothy Sayers wrote, “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down. . . At its best, Envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst it is a destroyer — rather than have anyone happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.” Envy isn’t just a personal sin. It is one of shared consequences, a communal deadly sin.
We don’t often think of envy as one of the taproots of the climate crisis. How, might I ask, is it not? The never-ending race to outdo one another, living endlessly in comparison to others, to level ourselves up and tear others down, has had devastating consequences by creating our cultural and economic cycle of consumption and waste. Indeed, scientists at the National Institutes of Health studied the connection between envy and environmentalism.
While they allowed for something they called “benign envy” (scientists are permitted such; theologians are not), they discovered that “people who are high in malicious envy tend to engage in more environmentally harmful activities rather than living a sustainable life.” Their conclusions were two-fold:
First, individuals should be aware that upward social comparisons could be the antecedent of environmentally harmful behavior, especially when inferiority, hatred, and anger deplete limited self- control. Secondly, malicious motivations are not only harmful to personal mental health but also detrimental to the natural environment and climate change.
Envy kills everything.
I feel like the disciples shouting at Jesus: How then can anyone be saved?
“Love does not envy,” wrote St. Paul. Love of God, love of neighbor. Love seeks not its own way. Poetically spiritual and psychologically sound. Dwell on love, dwell in love — and watch the resentments drain away. Practicing love rearranges the heart. Love opens the possibility of empathy, sympathy, and compassion instead of envy, resentment, and malice.
And what Jesus said, of course: So the last will be first, and the first will be last. Envy drives us to elevate ourselves over others by either beating them at the game or beating others down. But the question in this parable — Are you envious because I am generous? — calls us to remember that we are all recipients of a wild generosity. Manna that falls like rain; watercourses in the desert; lilies of the field — the gifts of God for all the people of God.
Envy inhibits gratitude. However, the reverse is also true: gratitude is an antidote to envy. And that is the central point of Jesus’ little story.
Are you envious because I am generous? Don’t you understand? Gifts call forth thanks. Bask in gratitude for the generosity of the vineyard. There is no need for first and last. All are welcome, all provided for. Here is the garden without rivalry, without death. Abundant life.
When Cain’s envy consumed him, when he killed Abel, blood cried out from the ground. That poisoned Earth now cries to us: Put away your resentments of one another, knowing that you all dwell in the same vineyard, and tend to the healing, renewing work at hand.
Love God. Love one another. Love the Earth.
Jesus among his apostles attempted to root out envy by rooting out its arch cause: rivalry.
— Joseph Epstein
In Japan, in Seattle, In Indonesia—there they were—
each one loud and hungry,
crossing a field, or sitting
above the traffic, or dropping
to the lawn of some temple to sun itself
or walk about on strong legs,
like a landlord. I think
they don’t envy anyone or anything—
not the tiger, not the emperor,
not even the philosopher.
Why should they?
The wind is their friend, the least tree is home.
Nor is melody, they have discovered, necessary.
Nor have they delicate palates;
without hesitation they will eat
anything you can think of—
corn, mice, old hamburgers—
swallowing with such hollering and gusto
no one can tell whether it’s a brag
or a prayer of deepest thanks. At sunrise, when I walk out,
I see them in trees, or on ledges of buildings,
as cheerful as saints, or thieves of the small job
who have been, one more night, successful—
and like all successes, it turns my thoughts to myself.
Should I have led a more simple life?
Have my ambitions been worthy?
Has the wind, for years, been talking to me as well?
Somewhere, among all my thoughts, there is a narrow path.
It’s attractive, but who could follow it?
Slowly the full morning
draws over us its mysterious and lovely equation.
Then, in the branches poling from their dark center,
ever more flexible and bright,
sparks from the sun are bursting and melting on the birds’ wings,
as, indifferent and comfortable,
they lounge, they squabble in the vast, rose-colored light.
— Mary Oliver, “Crows,” published in the New Yorker, September 2000
Generous God, whose gift defies the balance sheet of ownership and just award: free our hearts and minds from the envy which enslaves us; shape our lives to show your self-forgetting love.
— Steven Shakespeare
We are all thankful to our Mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.
Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, or Great Spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.
— Jake Tekaronianeken Swamp
During the pandemic, I discovered and became a fan of Andrea Skevington, an English writer and poet from Suffolk. Although we’ve never met, our theological and poetic sensibilities are so similar that I’ve occasionally wondered if we may be distantly related — in the 1650s, my ancestors left Suffolk for Maryland! Anyway, I’ve shared a few of her poems here at The Cottage, where they have been met with appreciation and enthusiasm.
As an unusual inspiration offering today, I’m linking this post from her blog: Poem: Gaia at Ely Cathedral. The whole piece — her photographs, her reflections, and the poem (including its audio version) — make for a beautiful journey of hope in this Season of Creation.
The photograph below is from her blog (there are more — do view them on her site to understand the scale of the art installation). Please make sure to thank her as she is part of The Cottage community!
SOUTHERN LIGHTS IS BACK!
January 12 -14, 2024
And our theme is Reimagining Faith Beyond Patriarchy and Hierarchy
Last January, almost 700 people gathered at St. Simon’s Island in Georgia for a packed weekend of poetry, theology, and music.
WE’RE GATHERING AGAIN!
YOU ARE INVITED to join me and Brian McLaren as we reimagine our faith beyond patriarchy and hierarchy in our interior lives, in our communities of faith, and in the Scriptures. We’ve asked three remarkable speakers to take us through this journey: Cole Arthur Riley, Simran Jeet Singh, and Elizabeth “Libbie” Schrader Polczer.
Please come and be with us in Georgia. SEATS ARE LIMITED! Or, if you’d rather be with us online, you can choose that option as well.
We are the belongings of the world, not its owners.
— Wendell Berry
I’m so sorry about the Austin event at University Methodist being postponed. With Tropical Storm Ophelia impacting travel from the East Coast this weekend, the better part of wisdom seemed for me to stay at home and avoid the bad weather. It was a hard decision to make — especially as I was looking forward to it! I hate disappointing friends and readers.
Stay tuned because we will reschedule Austin, most likely at the beginning of next year.