25th Sun [A] 2002

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16
Fairness. “It isn’t fair!”

Children playing games demand that the rules be fair and that other kids play fair. And that’s good. But how many of you have heard the following?

Teens shriek at their parents: “It isn’t fair!”

Schools aren’t fair with their exams; giving grades on performance isn’t fair. Teachers aren’t fair. The University’s admissions policies aren’t fair.

Capitalism isn’t fair. In the name of fairness, socialism and communism were tried and found not to be fair.

Life isn’t fair – bad things happen to good people.

The Church isn’t fair; the way it treats women isn’t fair. The way it appoints bishops isn’t fair. The way it treats victims of abuse isn’t fair, nor is the way it deals with priests who have broken the law and grievously sinned.

The way Jesus Christ rewarded Mary and ignored Martha’s complaint wasn’t fair.

God isn’t fair.

There we have it, the ultimate claim – God isn’t fair! –  a statement that takes us back to our beginnings, to the Book of Genesis and its presentation the origins of our history in relating to God. Here we find Adam and Eve in the Garden of Paradise, the garden God gave them and in which they could have anything they wanted. Indeed, God gave them everything. We read in Genesis 1:29: “God said, ‘See, I give you all the seed-bearing fruit; this shall be your food.” In other words, they had everything.

Only one thing was forbidden them, namely the fruit of but one tree, the tree in the middle of the garden. Was God being unfair?

Ah, well… enter the serpent whispering about God’s unfairness. The 3rd chapter of Genesis sets the stage: “The serpent was the most subtle of all the wild beasts that Yahweh God had made. It asked the woman, ‘Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?’” Note the subtle shift; the serpent changes the word “all” to “any”, suggesting as he does so that there’s something wrong in God’s scheme.

The woman answered the serpent, ‘We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden.” And she was correct – she answered rightly. Said she: We may eat the fruit of the trees in the garden, But of the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden God said, “You must not eat it, or touch it, under pain of death.”

Then the serpent said to the woman, ‘No! You will not die! God knows in fact that on the day you eat it your eyes will be open and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ In other words, you can challenge God himself because you will know as He knows. The truth is, in all fairness, you can have whatever you want. You can do whatever you have a mind to do.

The competition between our will and God’s will has gone on ever since that original rebellion. The Old Testament presents us with accounts of one disaster after another resulting from our rejection of God’s will, our rejection of God’s purposes.

Throughout human history God has repeatedly attempted to quash our pride and reach us. Today’s first reading gives us the words of one of God’s greatest prophets, namely Isaiah.

We heard Isaiah once again calling us away from Satan’s pride. Said he: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heaven are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”

In the light of the fact that we still question God’s ways, what spiritual progress have we really made? We still call God into account. We still sit in judgment against God and His ways. We still think what we consider to be fair to be the ultimate standard, measuring God’s fairness by our standards of fairness.

But what really is “fair”? When we declare that all men and women are created equal many end up by demanding that they be the same. When we look at our economic systems we demand that everyone have the same net worth. When it comes to possessions, when it comes to recognition of academic achievements, when it comes to abilities and competencies there’s a huge struggle going on to make all the same. Oh, we pay lip service to the phrase “equal opportunity” but we judge by outcomes. The result is a “dumbing down” so that everyone is at parity. I recently heard of a high school that graduated fourteen valedictorians out of fear of generating negative feelings of self-worth in those who were graduating with achievements less than the single best student in the senior class. What, I ask, was the value in being named one of fourteen valedictorians?

Deflating the value of academic degrees, deflating the value of grades, of recognitions of achievement, of being a cut above everyone else, and doing all this in the name of fairness, is ultimately unfair. In the long run, our ways lead to one disaster after another. The Soviet “Workers Paradise” ended up being a gigantic gulag. And when one or a small minority of kids in a high school manage to impose their will against all the others in that school, including the teachers themselves, then the inmates have taken over the asylum and the educational opportunity of all will be reduced to what the dumbest demand.

What is at issue in our lives, especially these days, is what is meant by the word “fair”. Just what is the content of fairness? What does it demand? Indeed, even using the word “demand” raises challenges to those who cannot accept any demands at all, including (and perhaps particularly) God’s demands upon us.

In the end it’s a good thing God is God and that he is the ultimate judge of fairness because, to be honest, we haven’t done such a good job in understanding it’s meaning and content. Nor have we done such a good job with what is meant by Justice.

For us, here today, we need to once again set aside our pride and arrogance and turn to the mind and heart of God. For his ways are not our ways and the only way out of the quicksand that sucks us all down is to take Christ’s hand and extract ourselves from our dilemmas with His strength. For if we let God be God, He will give us everything else that we could ever want or need.

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.”