Fr. Charles Irvin
25th Sun [A] 2014
Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16
How often do you hear the cry “It isn’t fair?” It is, of course, a complaint you hear many times from children and teens. Students complain their teachers aren’t fair with their exams. Some adults and parents complain that giving grades on performance isn’t fair. How often do parents tell us that teachers aren’t fair? And what about university admissions policies, are they fair or unfair?
The Hurricane Katrina disaster brought forth a host of concerns about fairness. So, too, in follow-ups from other natural disasters.
Capitalism, we are told, isn’t fair. In the name of fairness, socialism and communism were tried and found not to be fair.
The Church, we are often told, isn’t fair. The way it treats women isn’t fair, we are told. 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, according to Martha, very fair.
Life isn’t fair – bad things happen to good people.
Finally we hear the ultimate complaint – God isn’t fair!
All of this takes us back to the beginning of things, 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 where 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 to them, namely the fruit of but one tree, the tree in the middle of the garden. Was God being unfair?
Thereupon the serpent enters the scene 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. God had told Adam and Eve they could eat from all of the trees in the garden except for just one in the middle. The serpent changes the word “all” to “any” saying, “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?” Satan’s suggestion was, of course a lie, but he put it to Adam and Eve in a way that makes one think there was something wrong in God’s plan, that God was unfair.
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.”
So the serpent went on to lie to the woman saying, “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, the devil suggests, is that in all fairness you can have whatever you want. You can do whatever you have a mind to do. You can be like God!
The competition between our will and God’s will, between our ways and God’s ways, has gone on ever since that original rebellion. Throughout human history God has repeatedly attempted to subdue our pride in order to reach us. Today’s first reading gives us the words of one of God’s greatest prophets, namely Isaiah. We heard God, through His prophet 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? Even today people still call God into account. They still sit in judgment against God and His ways. Many of us still think what we consider to be fair is 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 people twist that around to claim they are created to be the same. When we look at our economic systems some claim 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 us 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, deflating 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 number 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.
At issue in our lives, especially these days, is what is we mean 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.