Matthew 20:1-16 (25th Sunday of Ordinary Time)
In the movie Toy Story, we are introduced to Woody, the favorite toy of a young boy named Andy. Everything changes for Woody when Andy receives a new toy for his birthday, Buzz Lightyear. Buzz soon becomes Andy’s favorite toy, filling Woody with an overpowering jealousy that changes him from being very warm and friendly into an angry and sad toy. Much of the movie follows the personal growth of Woody as he struggles to overcome this strong jealousy. Jealousy is something we all struggle with in our life. St. Thomas Aquinas says that jealousy is the “irrational anger at the success of another”. Jealousy poisons our attitude towards life and our relationship with God. Jesus’s parable about the labourers and the landowner in the gospel offers us some important insights about jealousy and how we can overcome it.
Jealousy makes us bitter and joyless people because it causes us to lose sight of the good we have in our life. Imagine that you are driving around and you see a Lamborghini on the road. Suddenly you wish you had that car; your own seems like rubbish in comparison. In that moment, however, you have forgotten that your own car is a gift in your life. It helps you and your family get around. In fact, many people in the world would be happy to have the car you do. Or consider this historical example. Andrew Carnegie, the multimillionaire who died in 1919, left $1 million for one of his relatives. When this relative discovered that Carnegie had left $350 million to public charities, he cursed Carnegie thoroughly because he had cut him off with just one “measly” million. For many of the labourers in the parable, the only thing they focus on is that some workers got paid the same for working a shorter amount of time. In their jealousy, they forget about all the good that happened that day: the fact that they got paid an honest wage. If they had focused on this good, they would have been satisfied and happy with the efforts of their day. Instead, their jealousy poisoned their hearts. They became angry with the landowner and the other workers. Likewise in our lives, jealousy blinds us to the good we have in our life and therefore robs us of happiness.
Jealousy is linked to ingratitude, another poison of the spiritual life. The parable of the labourers presents two different attitudes to our relationship with God, represented by the landowner in the parable.
- Boss/worker relationship: sometimes we can fall into the temptation to think that all the prayers we say and good works we do are ways to earn God’s favour. Gratitude for God and love of Him are not our motivations. God becomes an impersonal boss. Prayer becomes work, going to Mass on Sunday becomes a duty and doing works of charity become down payments on some favour we hope to receive in the future. Jesus warns against this attitude in the parable. The labourers have lost sight of the great generosity of the landowner who made the first move, reaching out to to all of them in love.
- Father/child relationship: Jesus encourages us to base our relationship with God on gratitude. Everything that we do in our life as followers of Jesus is in response to a God our Father who has first loved us and showered gifts upon us. The reality is that we are all the labourers who were hired at the last hour. When we recognize this, our hearts should fill with gratitude and love for God. Prayer, going to Mass and doing goods works are then done as an overflow of the gratitude and love we experience.
In order to overcome jealousy and ingratitude in our lives, we need to take practical steps to recognize the blessings God has given us. At the end of the day, is it easier to remember all the blessings of that day or the things that went wrong? For me, it is all to easy to focus on the later. God is constantly blessing us each day. It can be something as simple as a conversation with a friend, a compliment someone offered us or some way in which we were able to reach out to others with kindness. In these simple, daily blessings, God shows us His love for each of us in a very personal way. Unfortunately, we so often miss and easily forget these moments of grace. In order to prevent this, it is helpful to take some time at the end of each day to review our day, recognize some blessings and give thanks for them. An easy way to do this is something I like to call the “Toothbrushing Prayer”. Since we all brush our teeth at night, it is something we can all do. While you are brushing your teeth, try to think of two or three blessing that happened during the day and give thanks for them. The more we recognize the ways in which God has blessed us, the more our hearts will be filled with gratitude and love of God and the less we will experience jealousy for the ways we believe God has blessed others.
By the end of Toy Story, Woody is able to overcome his jealousy by focusing on the blessings in his life. One blessing he is able to recognize is that Buzz is not competition but someone in his life who can become his great friend. With this sense of gratitude, Woody regains his joyful disposition. We need to take steps to prevent jealousy and ingratitude robbing us of the joy of following Jesus, who loves us and blesses us each. Give the Toothbrushing Prayer a try for one week and discover the difference gratitude makes. As the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart wonderfully said: If the only prayer you said in your life was “I thank you”, that would be enough.