Friday of Septuagesima: The Evil Eye

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“Or is your eye evil because I am good?” These were the words of the landowner to the workers in the vineyard who bore the burden and heat of the day, but were paid the same amount as those who only worked an hour. He invokes a cross-cultural legend, the evil eye.

The “evil eye” is among the most enduring and ubiquitous legends in all of human history. Its malicious look, usually from envy, can curse the object of its stare. Heliodorus, the ancient Greek playwright, describes it: “When any one looks at what is excellent with an envious eye he fills the surrounding atmosphere with a pernicious quality, and transmits his own envenomed exhalations into whatever is nearest to him.”

Wanting what is not given, that’s envy, or covetousness.  In the Bible, coveting is twice covered in the Ten Commandments. This for a reason. In his letters to the Ephesians and Colossians, idolatry is identified with covetousness. St. James writes, “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures. Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Jesus says of the eye, “But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”

A bad eye is an envious, covetous eye, and that is the root of idolatry. How does this work? Idols are projections of human yearning “otherized” so as to make them sacred and lifted to the status of cosmic significance. Athena, the goddess of reason, was nothing more than the Greek esteem for reason projected onto an “other.” Being “other,” it avoids solipsism and the anxiety-inducing sense that what one deems sacred is nothing more than one’s own proclivities lifted to divine status. In other words, it means more to say, “Reason is an objective good sitting among the gods,” rather than “I like reason a lot.” The same is true for sexual love (Aphrodite), martial skills (Ares), and so on.

It all begins with human desire, or covetousness, or the eye looking toward something and wishing it belonged to oneself. If that light in us is darkness, how great that darkness! It’s the darkness leading to idolatry.

Of course, there is a demonic angle to this as well, for demons are the darkness behind the idols. This only magnifies the pernicious work of demons and the strong correlation they have with our own minds. Demons lurk behind the phantasms that arise in our minds when the eye – the eye of darkness – allows a false light to come in and induce the covetous will.  Eve saw not a simple apple – forbidden at that – but the phantasm of what would make her like God, and wise. The bitter soul wallowing in envy sees not simple stuff – her neighbor’s new car, a picture in an advertisement, a series of Facebook posts – but the phantasm of a better life, however that life is defined. The infatuated lover sees from afar not a simple woman with flaws, but the phantasm of his ideal. These phantasms are the material from which idols are made, when the phantasm becomes projected onto an idol of our own making that has no correlation to the actual object of our desire!

(What happens when we go through that process, and then name that idol “Jesus”? It happens all the time! Perhaps a meditation for another post.)

The first workers were at the beginning of the road to idolatry, giving in to a covetousness rooted in their evil eyes. That idol would have been the Reward God. It’s probably the most popular god, a god shared by most non-Christian religions. But it’s a god made with men’s hands – or perhaps more subtly, crafted from phantasms arising from men’s desire – that “otherizes” and places with cosmic significance the seemingly true phenomenon that you should be rewarded for what you do.

But the landowner blows that all away with his behavior. He pays the last first, and pays them just as much as those who worked all day. It’s not about being rewarded for what you do. It’s about God doing “what he wishes with His own things,” out of His goodness.

Lest we condemn the first workers too much, we see the landowner calls them “friends,” reminding us of Jesus’ title as a “friend of sinners.” They still have a chance to repent and not go down the path of covetousness ending up at the feet of the Reward God.

Reward gods, like all other gods, have this quality about them. It’s the “Midas Touch” syndrome. They give you exactly what you want. With the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, you realize this is something terrifying to contemplate.

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