24th Sun [C] 2004

Fr. Charles Irvin

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32


“That’s not fair!” You’ve heard that complaint as much as I. Parents have had to deal with that cry from their kids a zillion times more than I have. That complaint is on the lips of children, comes forth from teens, rises us from broken hearts trying to deal with rejection, and is heard in funeral homes among those paying their last respects to friends and relatives who have just died.


What’s fair and what’s not is the stuff of political campaigns, labor contract negotiations, and deliberations of parish pastoral councils. Pastors are called “unfair”, bishops and the Church in general are accused of it. Hardly a week goes by when we’re not in some sort of conversation about what’s fair and what’s not.


Ultimately, as we mature, we must come to terms with the reality that life is unfair. This leads us to eventually realize that every single individual has his or her standard of measuring what’s fair and what’s not. If you’ve ever tried to get a group of people to wholeheartedly agree on what’s fair you’ll know what I’m saying. Fairness is an elusive standard. Fairness is something we all struggle to attain. Rarely do we succeed; most of the time we don’t.


Most of the time we wrestle with the question of fairness when it comes to the distribution of this world’s material goods, especially money. How many of the deliberations of our state and federal legislators are devoted to the attempt to be fair? I daresay that the great majority of legislative bills put before our state houses and our U.S. Congress’ representatives and senators deal with the distribution of our nation’s wealth and resources, along with treating all people fairly under the law.


Dealing with the question of fairness and who deserves what is a fertile field in which jealously, envy, hatred, spite and the desire for “getting even” find their roots. The question of fairness and its related judgments about who deserves what ultimately takes us on a journey deep within our hearts and souls. The issue ultimately becomes a spiritual issue, something that affects not just our thinking and judgments, but affects our hearts and our souls.


We are here at this Mass in order to present our hearts and souls to God. We know and He knows that our hearts and souls are not in good condition. God knows and we know that we need help, we need healing, we need His antidotes for the diseases, the spiritual diseases, we are suffering. Jesus told us, didn’t He, that He was here among us to heal those who knew they were sick, not those who didn’t think they needed any healing. If we think we don’t need any help, that we don’t need God’s help, we ought to ask ourselves why we’re here!


So what’s the spiritual message, what’s the spiritual medicine, we need when we’re wrestling with those dislocating and fracturing questions of fairness? When we wrestle with the question: “Who deserves what?” we ought to pay attention to God’s Word and what He wants to teach us when it comes to answering these questions.


The parable of the prodigal son is probably the best known of all of the parables Jesus taught. It goes right to the question of fairness; it deals with what the younger son and the older son deserved.


We all like to identify with the younger son because we’ve all sinned. We’ve all taken God’s treasures and squandered them on wine, women and song. We’ve all wallowed with the pigs. And many, if not most, of us have come to our senses and come back to our Father confessing our sins and asking for His forgiveness.


The problem is that we’re likely to stop there and not see ourselves in the elder son. But the uncomfortable truth is that we’ve all stood in his shoes, too. We’ve all complained, even bitterly complained, that God our Father hasn’t been fair. All too often we think of ourselves as the elder son did. We compare ourselves with others, particularly those whom we consider to be greater sinners than we are, and we get jealous over their good fortune. That fact that bad people, and some very bad people at that, receive the good things of life really upsets us.


Are we prepared, then, to deal with the reality that God never gives any of us what we deserve, that He gives each one of us, no matter what condition we’re in, more than we deserve? That’s the point behind all of today’s three readings. That’s the point of the first reading from the Book of Exodus. That’s the point in today’s reading taken from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy, and that’s certainly the point behind today gospel reading about the younger son and his elder brother. We all, each and everyone one of us individually, have received far more from God our Father than we deserve.


So while we know it’s true that life isn’t fair, we need also to know that it never has been — and it never will be. And it’s true we don’t get what we deserve. Instead we get far more than we deserve.


But there’s more yet to draw from the waters of God’s spiritual well. We need to go one step beyond and see ourselves not just in the shoes of the younger son, and not just in the shoes of his elder brother, we need to see ourselves in the shoes of the father. The most missed point of this parable is that we should locate our hearts in the father’s heart. We should see those around us, our brothers and sisters, through his eyes. We should love them with his love. For if we do, then questions of fairness and arguments about who deserves what all become useless, even silly.


Love is never given to those who deserve it. As a matter of fact, great love is given to those who have no claim on it. Great love is freely given, no strings attached, no conditions demanded, with no expectations of receiving anything in return. Love is freely and unconditionally given unfairly and without anyone deserving it. That’s what makes it so wonderful. That’s what makes us God-like. That’s what brings us to be made, through the power of Jesus and His Holy Spirit, into the image and likeness of God.


Can we do that on our own? Of course not! “With man it is impossible; with God all things are possible.”


So I am here with you today to receive the Bread of Life. I am here with you to receive that which will feed my soul and give nourishment and strength to my spirit. For it was from the pierced heart of Christ that His Precious Blood flows into your heart and mine, there to wash away all struggles with questions of fairness and deserving and to drown out our complaints. May all who see you and who see me recognize the love of the father seen in today’s beautiful parable of the prodigal son who found the answers to life’s questions in the arms of his father – in his father’s heart.

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”