An Ancient Jewish Parable
One night a poor farmer was awakened by an angel of the Lord who said: ‘You’ve found favor with God. Make any three requests, and he will grant them. There’s just one condition: your neighbor will get a double portion of everything you receive.
Immediately the farmer woke up his wife and told her everything. Then they prayed, ‘Oh God, if we could just have a thousand cattle, that would free us from poverty!’
They had barely finished their prayer when they heard the sound of a thousand cattle mooing outside. For the next two days the farmer’s feet hardly touched the ground.
On the third afternoon he was up on a hill behind his house, trying to decide where to build a new barn when, for the first time, he saw his neighbor’s field, and there on the green hillside stood two thousand cattle. Instantly, his joy evaporated and a scowl of envy took its place. That night he refused to eat supper, and went to bed in an absolute rage.
Deep in the night, however, he remembered that he had two wishes left. So he prayed, ‘Gracious God, if it please thee, give me a child that I may have descendants.’ It wasn’t long before his wife announced happily, ‘We’re going to be parents!’
The next months passed with unbroken joy. Finally, the child was born. The next day was the Sabbath. He went to the synagogue and at the time of prayer, he stood up and thanked God for giving him a son.
He had hardly sat down, however, when his neighbor stood up. ‘God has indeed been good to our town. I had twin sons born last night. Praise God!’ Hearing that, the farmer’s joy was replaced with the canker of jealousy.
This time, the dark emotions wouldn’t leave. So he made his final petition, ‘Lord, please gouge out my right eye.’
At once the angel of the Lord appeared saying, ‘Why, son of Abraham, have you made such a hideous request?’
With pent-up rage, the farmer replied, ‘I can’t stand to see my neighbor prosper!
I’ll gladly sacrifice half my vision for the satisfaction of knowing that he’ll never be able to see what he has.’
A long silence followed. Then the farmer saw tears forming in the eyes of the angel. ‘Why, son of Abraham, have you turned a time to bless into a time of hurting? Your third request is denied, not because the Lord lacks integrity, but because he is full of mercy. You’ve brought sadness, not only to yourself, but to the very heart of God.’
The moral of the story? If you want to be miserable, then compare what you have with what others have. There will always be somebody with more than you, and they will always be, in your opinion, less deserving.1
Paul’s portrait of Real Love in 1 Corinthians 13:4 reveals that love “does not envy.” But why did the saints at Corinth need the reminder that Real Love is not envious?
Overly enamored with the phenomenon of spiritual gifts, some saints were jealous of others’ gifts. So God says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you.’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts we think are less honorable we treat with special honor….But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked, so that there should no division in the body, but that its part should have equal concern for each other (1 Cor.12:21-23, 24b-25).”
But who are the weaker members of the church body? They are Christians who seem to have less important gifts but are truly indispensable. One gifted to serve may say, “Lord, I wish I had the gift to teach.” But what would the church be without those with the gift of serving? Like a physical body without a hand or a foot. In Corinth, those with the supposed lesser gifts began to devalue their worth to the church, and like a slimy, slithering snake, envy had crept its way into their hearts, poisoned their perspective and created division in the body.
In Our Daily Bread, Dave Egner writes, “The evangelist was articulate, self-assured, and sincere as he proclaimed God’s Word. He held the congregation spellbound with his powerful expressions, smooth delivery and fascinating illustrations. Some were rekindling their passion for Christ. Others were getting saved. But Dick, who had faithfully pastured his flock for six years, was struggling with jealousy.
Susan sang effortlessly and with melodic beauty. You could have heard a pin drop as she finished her solo, bowed her head, and walked gracefully to her seat. The congregation burst into applause—all except the church’s leading soprano. Her fists were clenched in jealous anger.” As Egner concludes, “Spiritual gifts and natural talents we use to serve Christ are given by the Lord for the good of the church. When we accept this, there’s no room for envy.”2
Where does envy show up in our lives? I suggest four areas as possibilities:
- Affluence: Do you envy what others possess: a nicer car, kitchen, neighborhood or wardrobe than you can afford?
- Appearance: Do you wish that you or your spouse had the looks, the build or the health of someone else?
- Abilities and achievements: Are you jealous of how much God has blessed other believers in the size of their ministry, preaching ability, speaking opportunities, books published, or community influence?
- Advancement: How do you react when another gets the job you wanted? When another is promoted and you aren’t?
Like that poor, Jewish farmer who couldn’t stand to see God bless his neighbor more than him, when we are green with envy, we are ripe for trouble.
So what’s the antidote for envy? In one word, contentment. Contentment with God’s material provisions, perfect timing and His choice in the gifts, talents and opportunities He gives; contentment that continues in crisis, when we see Disappointments as His appointments.
We all have a ‘Grinch’ living inside us. And we should never underestimate its power to enslave. Hebrews 13:5 commands, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’”
Perhaps it’s time to identify what creates envy in us, and with God’s help, declare war on that Green-eyed Monster!
1 Still More Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks. Wayne Rice, Zondervan, 1999, pp.98-99 (Adapted).
2 Our Daily Bread. February 21, 1993, Dave Egner (Adapted).
Ronald Barnes is a professor of Biblical Studies at Southern California Seminary (SCS) in El Cajon, CA. In addition he is also Pastor of Casa de Oro Baptist Church in Spring Valley, CA. Prior to working at SCS Ron was a Professor of Biblical Studies at San Diego Christian college (SDCC) from 1991-2009.
Ron received his BA in Biblical Studies from SDCC, and his Th.M from Dallas Theological Seminary. In addition he earned his Ph.D in Systematic Theology from SCBC&S. He has also published two books called, A Hero’s Welcome, and On The Edge of Their Seats. When Ron is not teaching he enjoys playing piano and guitar.