• Ez 18:25-28
• Psa 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
• Phil 2:1-11
• Matt 21:28-32
Growing up I heard countless admonishments from my parents—all of them deserved, I readily confess. One that has stuck with me is a simple, commonsensical remark made many times by my mother: “Life is not always fair.” A variation of this was, “You don’t always get what you want.” And, sure enough, I didn’t always get what I wanted.
As a parent, I sometimes think of those remarks when my young son says, “That’s not fair!” This is usually uttered with great frustration and often after some conflict with his older sister. And she, of course, often responds in kind: “It’s not fair that he gets to play with that toy!”
Our sensitivity—or hyper-sensitivity, as the case might be—to being treated unfairly hardly diminishes as we grow up and become adults. On the contrary, we often develop more elaborate and sophisticated ways of discovering real or perceived injustices. We recognize that today’s reading from the prophet Ezekiel offers a true picture of the human condition and complaint: “The Lord’s way is not fair!” How often do we think that God is being unfair to us, even unjust? Are we occasionally tempted to mutter to ourselves, “It’s not fair that God is putting me through this difficult situation”?
It has been rightly noted by many wise men that there are two ways to approach God and reality. We can either try to conform them to ourselves and our desires, or we can conform ourselves to God and reality. Put another way, we can ask, as God did of the house of Israel, is it God’s way that is unfair, or rather, are not our ways unfair?
Jean Cardinal Daniélou (1905-1974), a French theologian much admired by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, once wrote that “God’s justice, according to the Bible, has nothing in common with the communicative justice that governs relationships between men, and the mistake lies precisely in wishing to apply such a criterion to the relationship between God and men” (God and the Ways of Knowing, [Ignatius Press, 2003], 96). One the lamentable errors often made by man is thinking that he deserves to have rights before God. This is not to say that God’s justice arbitrary or malleable. On the contrary, the Catechism reminds us, “In God, power, essence, will, intellect, wisdom, and justice are all identical. Nothing therefore can be in God’s power which could not be in his just will or his wise intellect” (CCC 271).
The parable of the two sons, proclaimed in today’s Gospel, reveals this truth in a simple, powerful manner. To work in the vineyard is to pursue the will of God, to strive for holiness and to pursue justice. One son says he will not work the vineyard, but then changes his mind; the other son gives lip service, but fails to enter the vineyard. This is a picture of the Pharisees—who said the right things but failed to do them—and those sinners who acknowledged their need for God and acted accordingly. It is also a depiction of each one of us, who are sinners. We are invited by the Father to work the vineyard, to enter the Kingdom of God. What will we say? More importantly, what will we actually do? “Words are not enough,” the Catechism pointedly explains, “deeds are required” (CCC 46).
“Justice and the Kingdom,” wrote Daniélou, “are one and the same thing.” Why? Because both are gifts from God drawing us into His fatherly love. “God’s justice is not defined with reference to man. It is the faithfulness of love to itself.” Human justice will sometimes fail and life will in fact often be unfair. We won’t always get what we want.
But, then, the question for us should be different: What does God want for us and from us? And what should we, children born of grace, say in return? Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the September 28, 2008, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)