Sunday, September 21, 2008

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Once, while boarding an airliner in Turkey,
I noticed a round blue and white and black object,
about four inches across,
hanging on the wall of the aircraft’s cabin .
I had seen similar objects, in a variety of sizes,
all throughout Turkey:
hanging from rear-view mirrors and around necks,
kept in pockets and purses.
When I asked, I had been told
that they were amulets to protect against the evil eye.
You see, throughout the Mediterranean world
there is widespread belief in the evil eye:
the belief that by looking enviously
upon someone else’s good fortune
one could curse that person with the evil eye,
even if one did not intend to do so.
Being the modern, Western, sophisticated,
academic type person that I am,
I of course scoff at such folk beliefs. . .
though I think I felt just a little bit more secure
knowing that my flight from Istanbul to Kayseri
was protected from the evil eye —
a sort of backup safety system.

Apparently people in Jesus’ world
believed in the evil eye as well;
indeed, the evil eye crops up
in our Gospel reading for today,
though our translation hides it.
Where it says,
"Are you envious because I am generous?"
the original Greek actually says,
"Is your eye evil because I am good?"
As today, so in Jesus’ day,
the eye that looked upon another’s good fortune with envy
was thought to be an evil eye
that brought tragedy upon others.

In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel,
Jesus mentions the evil eye twice:
in addition to today’s Gospel reading,
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that,
"The eye is the lamp of the body.
So, if your eye is single,
your whole body will be full of light;
but if your eye is evil,
your whole body will be full of darkness."
Notice that Jesus contrasts having an evil eye
with having a "single" eye,
which means, more or less,
the same thing as being "single minded"
or "keeping you eye on the ball" or,
to use another phrase from the Sermon on the Mount,
being "pure of heart."
Being "single-eyed" is a way of characterizing those
who live their lives focused on God.
So what Jesus is saying
is that if you live your life focused on God —
if you are "single-eyed" —
then you will be filled with light.
But if you are evil-eyed —
if you live your life resenting the good fortune of others —
then you will be filled with darkness.

Notice that what Jesus is saying
is something different
from the standard belief about the evil eye,
according to which
looking upon someone with envy curses them.
Jesus is saying that the evil eye,
in fact, only harms the one who is envious,
the one who casts an evil-eyed glance at another.
When we resent the good fortune of others,
it does no harm to them;
rather, we are the ones who are harmed,
we are the ones who are filled with darkness,
who lose our focus
and so experience a kind of blowback of our own envy,
who find ourselves being made miserable
by the happiness of another.

We can see this at work in today’s Gospel.
Those who worked all day and were paid a fair wage
are so filled with envy at the landowner’s generosity
toward those who came at the end of the day
and were paid the same amount
that they can not see
that they have been justly rewarded for their labors,
and cannot rejoice in the generosity bestowed on another.
The evil eye is blind
to the magnificent, glorious generosity of God,
which means that it is blind to God,
because God is nothing else
but pure, unbounded generosity —
or, as the first letter of John puts it,
God is love.
And if we are evil-eyed,
if we can see the good fortune of others
only as a injustice to ourselves,
then we find ourselves filled with darkness so deep
that even the pure light of God’s love
looks like darkness to us.

Of course, we ought not be too hard
on those laborers who had worked all day.
After all, the evil eye seems to be part
of the fallen human condition in which we all share.
Which of us has not on occasion felt
that twinge of jealousy at the good fortune of another?
Which of us has failed to see God’s generosity
simply because it fell upon someone else?

But thanks be to God that God is so generous.
In the end, today’s Gospel
is less about the envy of the workers
than it is about the generosity of the landowner.
And we know that God is generous
in bestowing light upon us,
in prayer,
through the sacraments,
and in our encounters with others.
The Gospel — the good news — for today
is that God’s grace, God’s generosity,
is powerful enough
to overcome the darkness with which the evil eye fills us,
powerful enough to burn away the envy and resentment
that blind us to God;
for God’s light shines brightly
even in the darkest places of our lives.
Our Gospel gives us hope that it is God’s generosity,
and not human envy,
that will have the last word.

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