A fellow Dominican once suggested to me that envy is one of those sins which members of religious communities very rarely seem to confess. And yet it is usually those with whom we live and work in close proximity - our friends and colleagues - whose achievements can so easily arouse in us feelings of anger and resentment. We seldom feel aggrieved at the success of a great artist or expert musician. They are too distant from us. It is rather those we consider our equals - those with whom we in some sense see ourselves in competition - whose good fortune and success we are most likely to begrudge.
St Thomas Aquinas described envy as “sorrow at another’s good fortune”. It has been described as the only one of the seven deadly sins that gives the sinner no pleasure - however illusory or transitory - at all. It only eats away at us and destroys relationships.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard describes a group of people who are in one sense all equals. Each is a casual labourer in search of employment. But as in any group or community there are always those who are not the first to be chosen when some job needs to be done. Perhaps those workers hired only at the last moment were not particularly young or fit and were therefore less able to endure a long stretch of work outside in the burning heat. In worldly terms they were not of much use.
And yet the owner of the vineyard not only hires them for part of the day, but also rewards them with the same pay as those who had been toiling away the whole day. And this good fortune arouses feelings of bitterness and resentment in some of their colleagues. Their colleagues don’t want them to be considered their equals. The pettiness of their sentiments stands out all the more starkly when set against the generosity and compassion of the vineyard owner.
In this parable the magnanimity of the owner of the vineyard is telling us something about God and how God relates to us. And there are perhaps two lessons we can immediately draw if we transpose this parable on to the level of God’s dealings with us.
First, God is free to dispense his gifts as he seems fit. His gifts are not given simply on the basis of a person’s talents or natural strengths. For the point about God’s gift of grace - the help that he gives us to live the Christian life - is that it is free and undeserved. Each person is given the grace that is sufficient for them to live out their own particular vocation in the Church.
Secondly, we must not view God’s gifts to us in a materialist way, as though God’s grace is something finite which cannot be freely dispensed to all. St Augustine once pointed out that whereas material things diminish when they are shared out - if I share out my food there is less for me - this is not true in the case of spiritual goods. If I love my neighbour and can rejoice in his good fortune, I do not lessen the charity within me, but, in fact, only increase it.
The Christian response to the good fortune of others is not to feel aggrieved and resentful, but to rejoice and be glad with them as members of the one body of Christ, knowing that in so doing we are not being deprived of anything ourselves, but rather opening ourselves to receive an even greater abundance of spiritual gifts.