MATTHEW 20:1-16

APRIL 24, 2016

Rev. Dr. Richard Meyer

(Play Audio)


            Let’s update the story, not that it needs it, but still let’s update it and personalize it a bit. Let’s put our own Denny Adams into it. Denny didn’t own the land in Iowa, but at one time he tended the vineyards there and even made the wine. So imagine, Denny one Fall morning. The sun is shining and the sky is clear, and he consumes his breakfast knowing he must make the most of the day. Some call it, Making hay while the sun shines, “ but if you are Denny Adams maybe you call it,Making wine before the grapes rot." Whatever the phrase, the focus is the same. Harvest won't wait.

            Denny finishes his breakfast, climbs into his pickup truck and drives down the road where day laborers assemble looking for work. Denny hires them for the normal wage of a $100 a day. He comes back at 9:00 and hires more, and again at 12 noon, and once more at 3:00. Then at the bewitching hour of 5 p.m., one hour before closing time, he still finds stragglers on the corner, so he sends them to the vineyard to work as well.

            At 6 o'clock quitting time, Denny instructs his foreman to pay the workers starting with the last hired and pay them first. The one hour workers receive a full $100, the normal daily wage for a laborer. Hopes rise in the hearts of the others. We hit the jackpot today, we've been here three, six, nine hours. If he's going to give somebody a whole day's wage for one hour of work, think about what we're going to make." But when their turn comes to be paid, they too receive a $100, even the 12 hour workers who have labored through the heat of the day.

            Well, you can imagine the reaction. Grumble, grumble, gripe, gripe, complain, complain, who wouldn't? It's well — unfair! Unjust! Inequitable! If this happened at our place of employment, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the United Farm Workers Union, and every alphabet soup advocacy group would be would be up in arms.

            What's going on here? Well, did you catch punch line? In case you missed it, here it is once again: Are you envious because I am generous?"

            Envy, that’s the deadly sin we want to work on today in our Spring Cleaning 2.0 sermon series.  We’ve already looked at sloth and pride and greed. Today we tackle envy.

            Why is it easier to weep with those who weep than it is to rejoice with those who rejoice? We don't want to admit that but that’s often the case. Even for upright people, church-going people, it is often easier to weep with those who weep than it is to rejoice with those who rejoice,

            At the core of this behavior is the deadly sin that our church fathers an mothers called envy. It's a fundamental sadness at the good fortune of another. It's a weird kind of sin. If we lust we might get happy for a little while. If we are greedy, we might enjoy our stuff for a season, but there is no joy in envy. We even look sick when we have it, hence, the expression green with envy." We’ll never be happy as an envious person. Yet, it lurks in the hearts and minds of fair-minded people, people like you and me.

            Let's probe a little deeper. In good Trinitarian fashion I want to say three things about it.

            First, reading through the bible we quickly discover that envy shows up in our family tree.

            One can make a case that it was envy that got Adam and Eve booted out of the Garden. They wanted to have knowledge of good and evil. Why? Because they didn't have it. There they were in Paradise, and yet it wasn't enough for them. They envied what God had and they took the forbidden fruit, and sin and death entered the world, all because of envy. We need to be careful with envy because it's deadly stuff.

            Speaking of deadly, Adam and Eve passed it along to one of their sons. They had two boys, Cain and Abel. Abel was a shepherd. Cain was a farmer. Cain offered some grain to the Lord. Abel brought a prize lamb, the best of his flock. God was pleased with Abel's offering but rejected the offering of Cain. Felling the sting of rejection and envious of his brother’s status with God, Cain coaxed Abel into the desert where the first murder in the bible takes place. Envy. It seeps into the cracks of the soul.

            Then there’s Jesus’ story about a father who had two sons. One son, wrapped up in himself, rebelled, ran away, wasted his life in riotous living. Then one day he we woke up, came to his senses, and realized he could go home and be a servant and be in better shape than he had at the moment. He returned home. While he was still a long way off, the father spotted him, ran to meet him, threw his arms around him, put a ring on his finger, a robe on his back, shoes on his feet, and welcomed him home with a party.

            Great story, except that this son had an older brother. He was out in the fields working, as he had done his whole life. When he heard the music and saw the dancing, he was angry and refused to go in. So, his father went out to fetch him, but to no avail. All the father heard was one long outburst of anger about how he had worked all these years and never even had a goat for a feast with his friends. Envy. It runs in our biblical family tree. No wonder it spills over into our lives today.

            That leads me to the second thing I want to say. Envy, not only runs in families, but also in the workplace.

            I bet I don't have to tell you that. Its grumbling can be heard among employees. I know, we try to keep salaries a secret, but somehow people know.  They've got it figured out just like these workers in the vineyard. How come I'm not making more than they are? I know I agreed to a $100 a day but, good Lord, a guy works only one hour and gets the same as me. There's something wrong with that."

            Joseph Epstein in his book on envy says academia is more heavily laden with envy than any other institution on earth. If you want to smell envy in the air, just visit Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, drive down to Lincoln or over the hill to Bellevue University.

            I don’t know about envy and academia, but I do know the church would give academia a run for it’s money. Barry and I heard William Willimon speak just over a year ago in Lincoln. He is an elder in the United Methodist Church, and served as the dean of Duke Chapel and was  Professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University for 20 years. He’s also an author even writing a book on the seven deadly sins. He said he had to write that book after going through the process of being elected bishop in the United Methodist Church. He said, I saw these deadly sins practiced among Christians in new and deadly ways … by myself and by others.”

            Envy. It appears in the opening pages of the Bible. Envy. It lurks around institutions of higher education. Envy. It seeps into churches. Envy. It rears it’s ugly head in the market place where we compete with one another and wonder why we didn't get a better shake.

            Do you remember the old Jewish folk tale about two merchants who were always in competition and who despised one another? One day God decided to put an end to such foolishness. He had an angel deliver this message to one of the merchants. The message went as follows: I the Lord Almighty have decided you can have anything you want in this world — riches, wisdom, long life, children — whatever you wish, but on one condition. Whatever you get, your competitor will get double. If you get 10 million dollars, he gets 20 million. Understand?" The merchant thought a moment and said, Would you be willing to make me blind in one eye?"

            Envy. The Green Eyed Monster lurks everywhere, even in the hearts of good people. So, we need to do a little cleaning, and that leads me to the third thing I want to say about it. We need to remove it and replace it with something else. Remember in addition to the Seven Deadly Sins there are Seven Corresponding Virtues? Well the corresponding virtue, the polar opposite is gratitude, a deep abiding appreciation for life. So the way to remove envy is to practice gratitude.

            And the first step in that is to add the words “thank you” to our vocabulary. We need to focus on the blessings we have and give God thanks for them, and not focus on the stuff we do not have. We want to emulate David who said in the Psalms,O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise." The mystic Meister Eckhart said, If the only prayer you ever pray is ‘thank you' that it would suffice."

            “Thank you, God.” Is that the language of our heart?  

            One of the advantages of being alive at age 67 is the opportunity to gaze back over the years and see how I might have done it better. One learns a few things over the years. When I look back over my life I should have written as many thank you notes as I have preached sermons.

            Have we learned how to say thank you? Does it bubble up in our soul? Does it flow from our lips?  “Thank you, God. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you. Thank you.”

            I’m sure you have heard of the different stages of cancer. “Oh, they got it early.  She’s in only stage one” or “It’s really bad. He’s in stage four.” Let me suggest that there are three stages in the cycle of envy. And they work a little differently. The lower the stage, the worse the condition. So if you have stage one envy, it’s deadly serious. If you have stage three, you are in the clear. As I mention them, do a self-diagnosis, a self-exam. Determine in what stage do you presently find yourself?

            The first stage says that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It thinks, “They have it so much better than I.” “I wish I had what she has.” Stage One, the grass is greener on the other side.

            The second stage is to say that the grass is indeed greener on the other side, but then notice that it needs mowing. Here we envy someone else, but then realize that, "Hey, it's not all sparkle over there.”

            For example, I’m not sure why anyone would want to be the President of the United States. I’m tempted not to vote for anyone because if you want to be President you are a little crazy. Of course, there is a lot of good stuff about being President. One can be a world leader, a history maker. But I wouldn't have that job. I mean all the criticism the president gets.  All the headaches and problems the president has to deal with. I envy the position, but I wouldn't want the job. In some ways the grass is much greener on the White House lawn, but boy does it need mowing.

            The third stage is to say, "Hey, you know the grass is green on the other side, but the grass is really nice on my side of the fence, too." Stage three says, "Thank you, God, for allowing me to enjoy all that I have been given. I’m content. I see that my life is full of riches from you. The grass is also really nice on my side of the fence."

            In which stage of envy do we find ourselves this morning?

            Let me close with this. He was a young man when he inherited the farm. Though it gave him a decent living, after many years he became discontent with it, tired of it. He felt chained to the farm. Others seemed to have more freedom. He began to feel he needed a change. It was about that time that he began to find all kinds of things wrong with the farm. Little things, annoyances here and there. He finally came to the conclusion that he wanted to sell the farm. So he called a realtor who came out to the farm and looked it over. The realtor wrote up a description of the farm to be placed in the newspaper as well in the MLS, the Multiple Listing Service, thinking it would sell quickly.

            The realtor wrote, "A lovely working farm for sale. Ideal setting, picturesque location. Wooded acres with large hardwoods. Well kept, healthy livestock, fertile land." Before the realtor put this description in the newspaper, he let the farmer read it to make sure it was in order. The farmer read the advertisement; but after a little reflection he turned to the realtor and said, "This may sound crazy, but I'll take that farm. It's exactly what I've wanted all my life.”

            Sometimes we forget or overlook the blessings that are ours. Do we realize that there are countless others who can only dream of the blessings we enjoy? Well, there are. Let’s stand and sing.