Year A Ordinary 26
When I was a kid, if my brother got a cookie I would scream bloody murder until I got a cookie, too. If I got caught sneaking an extra one from the jar, I would immediately inform my parents that my brother had taken one, too, and he should be punished just like me. If I was told to clean my room, I would insist that it was only right and just that my brother clean his room, too, and refuse to begin until he did. Now, I have may have been more incorrigible than other children, I’ll leave that judgment up to my mother, but based on my experience most children share those sensibilities. We’re all born with a highly sensitive antennae that is modulated to fairness and justice. If I’m going down, I’m taking everyone else down with me, and if someone else gets a special treat you better believe I deserve one, too! To this day I still remind my parents that when I was in college, they bought my younger brother a jet ski and I never got a jet ski (I had a hard life!).
As adults, we’ve probably (sort of) grown out of this but I know that when I find myself jealous of another person, or upset that I didn’t get something I thought I deserved, that sense of grievance over fairness comes right back out. This might surprise you (or not), but even priests end up comparing ourselves to other priests – Why did he get that wealthy, west county parish? Why did he get elected for the personnel board and I didn’t? Why was he invited to speak at a conference when I know so much more than he does on that topic? Even if we don’t stamp our feet and cry fair and foul like when we were kids, we adults still have issues. We want what we deserve and are only satisfied if everything appears to be fair.
This can be a real problem, for one because it cause dissatisfaction. Instead of joy and gratitude for what we have, we always feel cheated and wanting more. It also proceeds from a premise that, in reality, we don’t really want to be true. We say we want life to be fair, but if it was it would be pretty terrible. I cannot count the number of times that people have treated me unfairly and I couldn’t be more grateful. People have encouraged me when I didn’t deserve it. They have sent me thoughtful notes and cards, given me gifts, and listened to me when I was in need of counseling. My parents dedicated their whole lives to caring for me and I have given them shockingly little in return. My life has not been fair – I have much more than I deserve.
I would encourage you to take time to consider all the blessings and undeserved benefits you have received. You’ll find that when you practice gratitude you’ll be reminded that you are a blessed, happy person.
And that’s kind of unfair. What we forget so easily in our drive to achieve total fairness is that none of us really deserve anything. St. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It can be very frustrating in the Church when it seems as though things are unfair. Of all places this should be a place where we don’t have to worry about that. But it happens. The priest forgets to thank you for volunteering, or he’s standing at the other door and doesn’t see you to say hi after Mass (sorry, everyone!), or even worse, the priest thanks someone else and forgets you! Or someone else has a spiritual gift that you wish you had – you can’t sing like the choir, or are too nervous to be a reader…all the glamorous spiritual gifts are already taken, and that’s not fair. Maybe something’s going on in your life and you prayed and prayed for a certain outcome but God just doesn’t seem to be listening and that’s not fair.
When the Israelites begin to complain in this way, claiming God has not treated them well, they’re quickly reminded that, no, life is not fair and, yes, they should be grateful for that fact. They desire the blessings of God even while they refuse to change their lives, even while they sin and break his commandments, even while they second-guess him. This is kind of par for the course for all of us, we constantly break our end of the bargain with God, and what we deserve is not heaven.
We demand of God what is not actually fair, we want to sin and do our own thing and then to go to heaven and be happy forever. We actually think we deserve it! That we are pretty good people, that no just and reasonable God would keep me out of heaven because everyone knows I’m really great, and if the Church ever says that anything I ever do or think is maybe, actually, kinda wrong, well the Church needs to mind her own business. It isn’t fair that she would try to tell me how to think about marriage, or immigration, or abortion and euthanasia. It isn’t reasonable for her to say to me, you are a sinner in need of the sacrament of confession. You need not justice but mercy.
Here’s the key to the whole problem of fairness, to think in these terms is to have it exactly backwards. St. Paul reminds us, “Regard others as more important.” It isn’t about me, and what I can take or get, or what I think I deserve. He tells us to put ourselves in the position of Christ – was it fair to him that he would die for my sins? That’s not how he thinks, though. For Jesus, and that means for me and you, it’s about how much love we can give.
This is an action, not a feeling, not something we only talk about. St. Paul says to look out for the interests of others. That’s an active, intentional way of not only thinking but also behaving. This goes to the deepest part of what it means to be religious, it’s a matter of the heart. I can’t help but notice that Jesus says sometimes people who seem less good at this whole religion thing are actually in front of us in the line to heaven. I can’t rest easy just because I’m a priest and I wear a collar. You can’t assume anything, either. Life isn’t fair, and we don’t earn our salvation. We rest in God’s love, and we are judged by the mercy with which we extend that same love to others.
St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day is today, when she was living in a Carmelite convent, had the realization that she didn’t really deserve all that much, that she didn’t have a ton of gifts or talents, that in fairness she ought to be quite humble. But then she had a startling realization. She says, “I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation…I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love… that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.”
Therese understands that concepts such as fairness and self-interest burn away like ash when confronted with the fire of divine love. Nothing is more important, nothing will bring you more happiness than to be purified by God’s love, to be held close to his heart. She concludes, “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things.”