Once upon a time there was a very holy Christian who lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert. Because his good example was inspiring many people, Satan decided he had to be neutralized by being led into serious sin—so he sent different demons to tempt the hermit, one after another. The first devil tempted him with lustful thoughts, but the man successfully resisted them by praying and keeping busy. A second demon tried to get him to overeat at dinner time, but the hermit easily overcame this temptation to gluttony. A third demon tempted him to be proud, but the man called upon God’s grace and remained humble. So it was with the next three demons: their temptations toward anger, laziness, and greed all failed. Satan was disgusted with these failures, so he decided to become personally involved. Calling his demons together, he thundered, “Your temptations didn’t work because they were too crude for someone this spiritually advanced. Now watch and learn.” Then he approached the holy man very slyly and whispered in his ear, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” The expression which instantly came over the hermit’s face showed that this devilish temptation had hit its mark, for the man scowled, his eyes tightened, and his soul was filled with envy. Satan smiled with satisfaction over his success, and explained to the other evil spirits, “Envy is often our best weapon against those who seek holiness” (Michael P. Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 121).
Scripture records examples of good, holy people falling prey to jealousy: for instance, when Jesus visited the home of Martha and Mary, Martha was envious of the way her sister sat listening to the Lord, and when Peter was talking to Jesus near the Sea of Galilee after Our Lord’s Resurrection, he saw John nearby and asked, “Lord, what about him?” It’s very easy to fall into the temptation of becoming jealous of others. We must be on our guard against this danger—for not only is it sinful, but it can also undermine all the good things we’re striving to accomplish in God’s Name.
The lesson in the Gospel of Matthew (20:1-16) is probably one of the hardest for most people—including ourselves—to understand and accept. We like to define everything in terms of fairness and justice—and solely on that basis, it does seem unjust, or at the very least, highly questionable, that those workers who labored for only an hour received just as much pay as those who worked all day long in the hot sun. Many times, however, people use noble ideas like justice and equal treatment to camouflage or disguise feelings of jealousy—and that seems to be what was happening here. In fact, the landowner zeroed right in on this point when he asked one of the grumbling workmen, “Are you envious because I am generous?” The man had received a day’s pay for a day’s labor, which meant he and his family would be able to eat and survive for another day—something which certainly couldn’t be taken for granted in that time and place. He should have been grateful for this, instead of begrudging this same blessing to another laborer also trying to feed his family. Strictly speaking, God doesn’t owe us anything; everything we receive from Him is a gift, regardless of whether or not someone else receives more than we do. Through the prophet Isaiah (55:6-9), the Lord reminds us that while He is generous in forgiving our sins, His thoughts and ways are not ours. Therefore, instead of complaining about or trying to pass judgment on God’s actions, we must accept and use His gifts with humility and gratitude; in this way we’ll be able to follow the advice St. Paul provides in his Letter to the Philippians (1:20-24, 27), namely that we should “conduct ourselves in a way worthy of the Gospel of Christ.”
An ancient Greek legend told of a talented athlete who ran very well in a race, but who finished second. The winner was praised by everyone, and a statue was erected in his honor. His competitor was extremely jealous, so every night, under the cover of darkness, he went to the statue and chiseled away at its base, planning to topple it. He succeeded only too well— for one night, as he chiseled away in anger and envy, the foundation crumbled and the statue fell on him, crushing him to death (Nelson’s Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, & Quotes, p. 271). Jealousy can be spiritually destructive: it can cause us immense moral and psychological harm, undo the good things we’ve accomplished, and thwart God’s plan for us. As the saying goes, God can’t offer us still more gifts, or lend us a helping hand, when we’re waving our fists in anger or filling our hearts with resentment.
God’s ways aren’t our ways—but His ways truly are best for us. Why is it, for instance, that it’s always someone else who wins the lottery, even though we’re the ones who really need the money? Perhaps it’s because God knows that suddenly having all that wealth would end up ruining our lives by making us too worldly or self-centered. Why is it that other people manage to achieve their dreams, while fame and fortune seem to elude us? Maybe it’s because God knows success would go to our heads, causing us to forget Him, thereby endangering our immortal souls. Why do we seem to have heavier crosses to bear than other people we know? Possibly God is preparing us to face a future crisis that would otherwise be too much for us to endure. Why do some people seem to have life so easy compared to us? Perhaps they’ve already paid a heavy price in ways we can’t even imagine, and God is now compensating them. Why do other people appear to be happier than we are? Maybe it’s because their great sufferings—which may be unknown to us—have taught them to be grateful for even the simplest blessings of life.
It’s very easy to be envious of others, but there’s nothing positive to be gained from that approach, and much that can go wrong. There will always be differences and apparent inequities in life, situations that don’t make sense from a worldly perspective. As Christians, we’re supposed to remember that, from God’s point of view, everything serves a purpose— and that, even when circumstances truly are unjust, the Lord is able to bring forth a greater good for those who trust in Him. Parents sometimes answer their children’s questions by saying “One day you’ll understand.” There are times when our heavenly Father might say the same thing to us—and if we’re willing to accept this answer, we can be sure our trust in Him will not be disappointed.