Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 | Matthew 20:1-16
Text: Matthew 20:1-16
No doubt, envy is a powerful emotion. It takes coveting up a notch, and is defined as, “painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” (Merriam Webster) The perception of another’s advantage is behind most tantrums from ages 3 to 83. Without envy, where would all this talk of such-and-such’s privilege come from?
Can envy in fact harm another person without them lifting a finger? Many ancient people have thought so, all the way back to the time of the Israelite Exodus. Hittites, Egyptians, and Greeks were terribly afraid of the power of the “evil eye.”
I. Belief in the Evil Eye is based on a fear of evil from outside, especially caused by envy.
a. It was believed that a look could bring a curse on another person, especially the vulnerable (pregnant women, children, the elderly). This curse would cause poor health or other misfortune. At its root, the evil eye came from envying another’s prosperity or beauty.
b. Greek philosopher, Plutarch (AD 46-119), writing just after our Lord’s ministry, tried to reason an explanation:
“Now, when men thus perverted by envy fix their eyes upon another, and these, being nearest to the soul, easily draw the venom from it, and send out as it were poisoned darts, it is no wonder, in my mind, if he that is looked upon is hurt.” (Plutarch, Quaestiones Convivales, Book V, 7.4)
c. What can one do to protect against the evil eye? Solutions range from wearing amulets and painting large eyes on objects, to special gestures (akin to “knock on wood”) and avoiding the gaze of strangers.
II. Our Lord, the God of Heaven and Earth, exposes the truth about the supposed evil eye.
a. By now, you’re probably wondering why so much about the evil eye? At the heart of Jesus’ parable today about the Kingdom of Heaven is the Master’s response to the one who has worked a full day: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (v. 15). The footnote in most Bibles will offer the literal translation: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
b. Jesus also recognizes the power of envy which the full-day workers displayed, but He says it’s root is in a different place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matt 6:22-23, He says,
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy [generous], your whole body will be full of light, 23 but if your eye is [evil], your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!
He doesn’t give the evil eye power to curse others, but makes a sad statement of one’s own condition: You are the one who suffers for the evil eye, because it means that you are filled with darkness and cut off from the life of God.
c. What of the evil eye and envy? That’s made even clearer in another place, where Jesus explains what defiles a person. In Mark 7:20-23, He says, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come…envy [the evil eye]… 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Jesus lists the evil eye among things that come from inside our sinful heart and curse, not others, but defile us.
III. Through God’s truth coming to us, we see that our sin is the real peril each of us faces. Because of our sin, we deserve nothing but the reward of our evil hearts. Yet, God is gracious to offer what we could never merit.
a. Envy rises up in reaction to God’s goodness: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”
i. To Cain whose face fell when Abel was regarded by God. Eventually Cain’s envy led to murder [Gen. 4:1-16]. Yet even in that, God showed grace to Cain by giving him undeserved protection.
ii. To the Israelites who ungratefully rejected God and Moses, even accusing both of evil intention. Yet to this rabble, He still gave water. [Ex. 17:1-7]
iii. It was not those who worked the hardest who gained God’s favor, but those who in repentance acknowledged their fault. Grumbling is the fruit of heart’s unbelief.
b.If there is any cursing going on, it this sin of grumbling against God and the wages of death which bring us the truest misfortune. Where pagans can only worry about bad luck and poor health, the end of this curse of sin is eternal suffering.
c. The true God is not fickle like our fallen minds imagine Him. He doesn’t leave us to figure out for ourselves what amulet or incantation will ward off the consequences. His cure to the evil eye is for His Son to be cursed for us:
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13-14)
The grace of God is higher than our ways. Our natural minds are darkened and can’t fit God’s ways into our “I deserve better” system. We envy one another, but don’t see how the evil eye is actually an accusation against our inability to save ourselves. In spite of each of our evil thoughts—while we were still sinners [Rom. 5:8]—Christ took our curse and instead gives us what He has earned: “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased.” And at the last judgment, not on the basis of our works, He will say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matt. 17:5; Matt. 25:21).
In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.