“That’s not fair!” Sunday reflection
This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 21:28–32:
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”
Note: I’m on the road this weekend, so I haven’t had the opportunity to delve deeply into today’s Gospel and scripture readings. I’ll offer some brief thoughts on them in this short reflection.
Anyone with children will immediately identify these three words as the most grating of all: That’s not fair! Perhaps the more honest of us will recognize those words as complaints that came out of our mouths during our childhood, too. This is one reason that grandchildren are a parent’s sweetest reward … and best revenge at times, too. I try not to remind my son of this too often, of course.
If we think we have it bad with our children, just imagine what it’s like for God. Actually, we don’t have to imagine this, because Ezekiel gives us the Lord’s answer in our first reading today. Apparently, the Father finds the “not fair” argument as tiresome from His children as we do from ours:
You say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.
Clearly, the demand for justice comes from something universal and basic in humanity. One might say we were built for it — we seek it continuously, demand it when we feel it has not been given to us, and often will act to impose our own view of justice when frustrated by perceived failures of it. This has been true since the beginning of time, both in Scripture and in anthropology. Adam and Eve sought their view of justice by seeking parity with the Lord and disobeying him, for instance, and Cain slew Abel because he felt slighted that the Lord favored his brother’s sacrifice over his own. Every human civilization had at its core a system of justice — wildly divergent systems and values, but nonetheless central to civilization itself. Even outside of civilized life, families would dispense vendetta justice on behalf of its members for real or perceived insults, a practice that happens to this day.
We all desire justice, and we all know how to define it, or at least we do from our own perspective. That, however, is the problem. As children, we see justice as serving our needs and desires without a sense of justice for others. As adults, we only improve to a certain degree from that self-centered perspective. Even parents, confronted with squabbling children demanding justice for themselves at the expense of their siblings, are sorely tempted to punish them all as a lesson rather than put themselves at the center of the argument.
In Ezekiel, the Lord responded to a series of bitter complaints from Israel about the perceived lack of fairness from God. In the context of the Israelites constant infidelities to the Lord, this must have sounded ludicrous to Him. As He made clear through Hosea, the Lord viewed Israel’s dedication to the covenant as that of a prostitute spouse — and yet He maintained His allegiance to His people nonetheless. Yet here is Israel complaining that the Lord is unfair in His judgments, or in the NIV version, “not just.” What’s unfair, He asks? All you have to do is not sin and obey my commands, and you shall live.
Jesus makes the same argument in a parable that makes it impossible not to get the point. On one hand, we have a son who defies his father but ends up following his wishes. On the other, we have one who mouths compliance but then reneges. Not only does this describe us, both describe us. We are all both sons at one time or another. We have the choice, though, to seek salvation, but only if we recognize our sins, repent, and do the Father’s will. The difference between the two is recognizing the necessity of repentance; Jesus’ point to the leadership caste is that they have failed to recognize their defiance and sin, whereas those who have been outcast have recognized it.
This argument parallels the parable of the prodigal son, which also came up last week. Jesus had two lessons in that story. The primary teaching was that we can all come back to our Father after dissipating ourselves in sin when we sincerely repent and return in humility, comprehending that we serve the Father’s will rather than demanding He serve ours. The second lesson comes from the older brother’s resentment and judgment on his younger brother for getting the fatted calf despite his transgressions. His rebuke to the father practically screams, “That’s not fair!”
But what does the father say to this rebuke? “We had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” This is the example of the Lord’s justice, that which lifts all up to Him when we choose to return. Our sense of justice and fairness comes from God, but His expands far beyond our petty interests and desires that divide us. His justice and mercy seek to unite all in caritas with Him.
That’s not fair — it’s wonderful. Even if that last Ding-Dong in the box back in 1976 was mine, I tell you.
The front page image is a detail from “Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard” by Jacob Willemszoon de Wet, mid-17th century.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.