God’s Fairness

Is 55:6-9 • Phil 1:20c-24,27a • Mt 20:1-6a

Everyone is nice at the funeral, but then the will is read. Families self-destruct over inheritances. It is not rare that a single family member has done the lion’s share of caring for an ailing parent for years and thus the parent has left more to that child than the others, especially the other children who never seemed to find the time for a visit. Inevitably those who rarely came around during the parent’s illness feels slighted if he or she doesn’t get their “fair share.”

We spend a lot of time concerning ourselves with what we believe to be fair. We are quick to demand what we believe to be our share. Unfortunately in the case of wills, in the quest to “get my share,” the estate is almost financially exhausted. In the quest to get “what should be mine,” true fairness is ruined for everyone.

Matthew’s community was also faced with concerns of what was fair and just. Unfortunately, they, like us, usually see things only from a personal point of view. Rarely does anyone struggle to see fairness from God’s point of view. The standard of fairness for Matthew’s community and for us is almost always set by the question, “How will I be affected?”

The Scribes and Pharisees were concerned that Jesus ate and associated with people that the Law considered sinners. Many of the leaders in Matthew’s community were bringing Gentiles into their midst, and Matthew’s community began to show the same mindset as the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew’s Christian community, being primarily of Jewish background, did not think highly of non-Jews joining the community and enjoying the same privileges. Those within the community who had been there from the beginning thought they were better. They felt as did the laborers who spent the entire day in the vineyard: they deserved more than the latecomers. Matthew had to set them straight.

Our readings over the past weeks have confronted us with thoughts that run counter to general opinions. The general opinion is that we should stay out of people’s private affairs. The operative phrases are “It’s none of my business,” or “Mind your own business!” It was startling to hear from the Gospel two weeks ago that God will hold us personally accountable for the sins of those we fail to attempt to correct for their potentially sinful ways. Another general opinion is that we have a right for “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.” It is hard to accept Jesus telling us to forgive those who wrong us, that there is no excuse for a failure to forgive. Our general opinion is that some people do not deserve forgiveness.

Today we are challenged to examine our notions of fairness and justice. The general opinion is that those who stay the course longer should get the greater reward — even in heaven. The Gospel tries to shake this notion out of hearts. We are familiar with the parable of the lost sheep which tells us that there will be more rejoicing over the one found sheep than over the 99 who stayed faithful. We do not like this notion. Surely we 99 faithful people will be rewarded better than the one of us who strayed!

God is generous; however, we must learn to let God be generous in His own way. We try too hard to create God in our image and likeness rather than the other way around.

In grade school we might have thought of grace as something that is quantifiable. The better we were, the more we got. Even today we speak of “building up graces.” Grace is much more than some measurable stuff that is given to us. Grace is about our relationship with God. Simply being with God should be enough for any of us, but we still think in terms of getting more than someone else.

We cannot earn grace. It is a gift. It is given for reasons other than putting a lot of hours in the fields. God will treat those who have done his will justly giving what He has promised: life with Him in the Kingdom. But God is also merciful. All his children are equally precious to Him, and He wants nothing more than to have all of us with Him. The challenge is to let God be merciful and generous even when “It’s not fair!” We must let God be God. How is it that sometimes it is the very generosity of God that we resent? How is it that we see an inheritance as a right and not as a gift from our parents?

Let God be God. It’s better for all of us. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”

FATHER STEINER, born and reared in Chattanooga, Tenn., is a priest of the Diocese of Nashville. He currently serves as rector of the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Nashville. Previously, he served in the diocesan high school as teacher, associate principal, and principal. He received his education from St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana, the Gregorian University in Rome, and The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.