Some of you might have enjoyed the movie Parasite, a Korean film that won last year’s Academy award for best picture. The film is very well acted and well made, but let me tell you why I think it’s not a good film: It’s because it justifies moral evil.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
In the film, there is a rich and a poor family, and in order to have a better life, the impoverished family gravely lies, causes people to lose their jobs, causes bodily harm, steals, damages property, attempts murder, and kills. The movie does not portray these as wrong actions, but sometimes even makes light of them. Again, while there are some good things about the film, it desensitizes us and our culture to moral evil, in particular, to the harm of envy.
Let’s go to the Gospel parable, which gives us an insight into God’s generosity and warns us about envy. A landowner hires labourers early in the morning and agrees to pay them the daily wage. Then he goes out at nine o’clock, noon, three and five o’clock and hires more labourers in exchange for the same daily wage. At evening, all the labourers get paid the same wage, and the ones who started early in the morning complain to the landowner, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat” (Mt 20:12). Their criticism is that he’s being unjust. They worked twelve hours, so they should get twelve times as much as those who worked one hour.
The landowner responds factually, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you” (Mt 20:13-14). Let’s establish the facts: The landowner is not cheating them nor is he being unjust. The early labourers agreed to what they earned: the fair daily wage.
Because he’s responded to their accusation of unfairness, he then shifts the discussion from fairness to generosity: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? [The answer is, ‘Yes.’] Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The landowner didn’t cheat anyone, but chose to be generous with people who didn’t earn it. And he exposes what’s in their heart: They were not cheated, but they’re angry that others got a gift.
Let’s ask a question if we were in the place of the early labourers: Can’t we be happy for people who receive a gift? We got the amount for which we agreed to work, and they received a gift—why can’t we be happy for them?
If they were our brothers and sisters and we loved them, instead of nameless people to whom we have no connection, wouldn’t we be happy that they got a gift?
The parable can really only be understood if we see the landowner as God the Father, Who wants to give the daily wage to everyone, even those who come late.
Let’s say there’s a family business, and I, the eldest, work from morning. If I had a good relationship with my father and understood that he wants to give my younger brothers and sisters a chance to work and give them a good wage as a sign of love, even though they didn’t earn it, then I would be happy for them, because I would understand what my father is doing.
Jesus is calling out human envy, which is “the misery, grief, sadness of loss or pain that one feels when another experiences success or prosperity” (Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Fr. Peter Stravinskas, 358). But if we were to see them as our brothers and sisters and God the Father’s blessing them, then we’d be happy!
Let’s go back to the movie Parasite and remember that we’re analyzing the moral message of the film, not its artistic merit. The wealthy family has so much materially. Can’t we be happy for them? It’s never made known in the film that they got their wealth illegally or immorally. For argument’s sake, let’s say the wealthy family is evil. Does that justify the poor family’s envy, resentment, and immoral actions?
It would seem that most people are unaware of the moral message of the film that justifies, or at least, is sympathetic to envy. That’s a serious concern for our culture and our souls. Most people with whom I spoke did not pick up on the justification of envy.
For most of us participating in this Mass today, we have the necessities of life and should never be envious of what other people have.
Please watch this three-minute clip from another film, Cinderella Man, about the true story of a boxer who was very wealthy and then lost everything during the Great Depression. It’s worth noting that his family’s financial condition was far worse than that of the Korean family in Parasite: Cinderella Man shows how the father skips his breakfast so that his children can simply eat. In this clip, we see his son has stolen meat so that they can eat and how his father teaches him that you never steal no matter how little you have.
There are a few lessons here:
1) Never be sad or resentful that other people have more than we.
2) Let me paraphrase the father: There are many people worse off than we, but just because things aren’t easy doesn’t give anyone the excuse to take what’s not theirs—that’s stealing. And we don’t steal. No matter what happens, we don’t steal. Not ever. You got me?
Remember what we said two weeks ago about moral commitments and never lying. The father in this film is very good because he asks his son’s word to promise never to steal. We should all make the same moral commitment.
3) Be grateful for who you are and what you have.
4) Never condone stealing or sympathize with envy.
Most importantly, the father promises never to send his son away. That’s what God the Father promises us: We will always have what we need, not materially, but spiritually.
Today’s parable is really about eternal life: God offers eternal life to everyone, even those who show up late—that’s we. The Jewish people were those who laboured in the Lord’s vineyard since the early morning, and they bore the heat of the day. They shouldn’t be envious that we’re offered the same gift.
God wants us to be spiritually rich, and that means to be a person of love, and love is the perfection of morality. And He gives us everything we need to be so. The poor Korean family was not only materially poor, but worse than that, they were spiritually poor. The boxer’s family was always spiritually rich because they had moral integrity.
Don’t be envious. Be grateful and happy that God our Father is generous to our brothers and sisters.