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"God Is Not Fair" - A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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by Stephen Bevans, SVD | September 24, 2017

"God Is Not Fair"
A Scripture Reflection for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 24, 2017: Is 55:6-9; Ps 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Phil 1:20c-24, 27a; Mt 20:1-16a

I've often thought that the gospel today is one that would make someone like the great Chicano farm union leader, César Chávez, shake with fury. It seems so unfair to those grape pickers or vine tie-ers who had worked twelve, nine, six, or three hours, and made exactly the same wages as those who had worked only one hour. Shouldn't there have been a minimum hourly wage on which a worker's salary could be computed? What would a Catholic ethicist say in the light of the powerful body of Catholic Social Teaching? Yes, it does seem unfair. And it is—but in a way that is fairer than anything we humans could ever imagine. Indeed, as Isaiah says in the first reading, God's ways are not our ways!

One of my colleagues here at Catholic Theological Union, Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, has written a book with an intriguing title: God is Not Fair and Other Reasons for Gratitude. I have to confess I have not yet read the book, but I really like the title, and I think it serves as a kind of interpretation key for our gospel today, a key that is echoed in our other readings as well.

The landowner in Jesus' parable is not fair, but he is generous. As some commentators point out, these workers standing around waiting to be hired—you can't help being reminded of (maybe undocumented) Latino men standing on corners and on parking lots here in the US, waiting for someone to give them work for the day—were men desperate for work so they could feed their families. A day's wage could feed their families for a day. And so the landowner, while being unfair from one point of view, was amazingly fair from this other. There is no doubt the workers didn't deserve this favor, but they desperately needed it. The landowner may have realized their desperation and was moved to compassion. So that's not something to get angry at, but something to be applauded.

The point of the parable, of course, is that this is the way God is. None of us deserve special treatment, but if we are in need God will give it to us. That's what God does. That's what grace is. We humans like to work on a scale of merit. God works on a scale of grace. God's ways are not our ways.

Today we might find the more "human" reaction to the gospel parable in Liberation Theology's and the last several popes' contention that God is first and foremost on the side of the poor, that God makes a "fundamental option" for them, and so must we Christians. But, something in us wants to say, doesn't God love all people equally? Doesn't God also make a "fundamental option" for the Middle Class, or for the Rich.  And, of course, the answer is yes. God loves all people with the same passion and compassion. Despite the translation in the Mass text, Jesus died for all. God takes delight in all God's people. No one deserves more attention. And yet, just like parents love all their children equally but lavish special attention on one who is sick, or going through a particularly difficult period, so God lavishes special attention and care on those who live in desperate straits. Poverty, wrote theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, is death. God, we know, is life. So God is particularly generous—and so unfair—in God's affection for those victims who are considered by so many, as Pope Francis says, as "throwaways." God is not fair, but thank God! God's ways are not our ways.

Perhaps in a similar way, we might think today of the controversy around the "Black Lives Matter" movement. Don't all lives matter? Don't Blue lives matter? Yes, indeed. Of course. All lives matter equally. But when African Americans are singled out day after day by racial profiling, when an African American can't hail a taxi in the city at night, when a policeman shoots a fleeing teenager in the back sixteen times—then we need to pay special attention to these lives. In a way it is not fair. But in a racially torn United States, such extra respect and attention are necessary. The generosity of the landowner is needed. God is especially on the side of the Black women and men who suffer and have suffered centuries of racial hatred and discrimination. God is not fair, but thanks be to God.

God's ways are not our ways, Isaiah proclaims. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who works with Latino gangs in Los Angeles, adds on to that: but they sure could be! Paul encourages the Christians of Philippi to conduct themselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ. That gospel is one of undeserved generosity, like the landowner in Jesus' parable today. It is not the human way, but it's a way to which God calls us. Deacon Greg Kandra, in his reflection in the monthly Mass book Give Us This Day, writes that "our call is to serve as magnifying glasses for the Gospel." Like those who worked fewer hours in the vineyard, like the poor of the world, like African Americans, we do not deserve strictly speaking, to be given special attention, to be called to this as Christians or ministers. But that is not the point. God sides with the world's poor. Black Lives Matter. God is not fair. God's ways are not our ways, but they sure could be!

The above image is from the Public Domain.

Author information Stephen Bevans, SVD

Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture
S.T.B., S.T.L., Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome; M.A., Ph.D., University of Notre Dame; Study: University of Cambridge

Steve Bevans is a priest in the missionary congregation of the Society of the Divine Word and Louis J. Luzbetak, SVD, Professor Emeritus of Mission and Culture.

After completing his Licentiate in Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1972, he served as a missionary to the Philippines until 1981. In 1986 he received a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and has taught at CTU since that time, officially retiring from the faculty in 2015.

He is the author or co-author of six books and editor or co-editor of eleven, including Models of Contextual Theology (2002), Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (2004), and An Introduction to Theology in Global Perspective (2009). In 2013, he edited A Century of Catholic Mission, and, in 2015, with Cathy Ross, Mission on the Road to Emmaus: Constants, Context, and Prophetic Dialogue.

He is a member of the World Council of Churches' Commission on World Mission and Evangelism.

sbevans@ctu.edu


Books written by Steve Bevans

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