[Texts: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; Matthew 5:38-48]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee. Amen.
My special ed teacher in high school was well-known among her students for a number of things, not the least of which being her famous arsenal of pithy one-liners. There were a bunch of them, and most of her students knew them all backwards and forwards by the time we graduated. In fact, even though I’ve been out of high school for nearly six years now, I still remember a few of them.
I’ll give you an example. Mrs. Holycross had the patience of Job about 99.5% of the time, and my teenage self was occasionally the reason she needed that much patience. (I was not always the perpetually-delightful ray of sunshine I am now, believe it or not.)
But there was one thing for which she never had any patience, and that was whining. There were no pity parties in room 204-B. If you made the mistake of saying anything to the effect of, “But Mrs. Holycross, that’s not fair!” you would always get the same answer… one of her famous sayings:
“Fair is for cotton candy and candy apples!”
It would seem that God might agree with that sentiment, judging by today’s readings.
In Leviticus, we are forbidden from acting out of vengeance– from treating our neighbors according to what we think they deserve. Instead, we are commanded to show them the love and grace that we would like to be shown ourselves.
Then, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus takes it even further. He (astutely) points out that anyone can be nice to the people who are nice to them. Anyone can love people who are easy to love.
But what about people who are hard to love? What about people who aren’t kind to you, or aren’t especially kind in general?
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Now, that doesn’t sound especially fair, does it?
Why should we have to love and pray for people whose words and actions show anything but love?
Well, He tells us why: “But I say unto you: Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”
Fairness– that baser instinct we all have that tells us people ought to get what they have coming to them– is a very human idea, really.
God doesn’t do fair.
God isn’t fair.
God is just.
There’s a difference.
Fairness is all about what we deserve— or what we think we deserve, or what we think others deserve. And when we talk about “justice” in a human sense (particularly with regards to the phrase “criminal justice system”) what we are really talking about is fairness.
When we contrast God’s justice with God’s mercy, as though they were two opposing forces, we are also talking about fairness. Fairness is very often the opposite of mercy. But justice– God’s justice– is not.
In fact, in the words of a very wise friend of mine, “God’s justice is mercy.”
And if we wish to be called His children, we must strive to imitate that. We cannot treat others the way we think they deserve, because we are God’s children, and He doesn’t treat us the way we deserve, either– which is really, really good news for us.
Time and time again, throughout the whole of scripture, we see God’s people learning to be in relationship with Him and with their neighbors– and, nine times out of ten, failing miserably at it.
We see a God who delivered the Hebrews out of slavery and oppression in Egypt, only to be repaid by whining, almost as soon as they’d crossed the Red Sea that He parted for them, that they wish they could go back to Egypt because it was better there. How does He respond?
He camps out with them in the wilderness– He never withdraws His presence from them. He provides them with manna and quail, and makes water stream out from a rock. And, eventually, He leads them into the land that was promised to them.
We see God portrayed in parables as the kind of Father whose child betrays Him? and wastes the life and livelihood He has entrusted him with. How does He respond? He welcomes His errant child back home with a feast.
We see a God who makes the first last and the last first, who calls the poor and meek “blessed” and would rather spend time with demoniacs and tax-collectors and adulterous women than with people who think they have it all figured out.
We know– because we say it every Sunday, right before the Eucharist– that “we are unworthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from beneath Thy table.” Right?
And yet, in an act of outrageous unfairness, God responds by offering us not only the crumbs we don’t deserve, but a place at the table– an invitation to the feast.
We see a God who entered into covenant after covenant with mankind– which we never waste any time in breaking.
But how does He respond? He keeps inviting us back into conversation with Him. He keeps giving us chance after chance, grace upon grace, no matter how much we screw up.
In fact, although God is perfect and always keeps His promises to us, and even though we never held up our end of the bargain, God responded not by giving us what we had coming to us, but by coming to us Himself– and by dying and rising again so that we, His woefully unworthy children, might share in His Resurrection.
That, my friends, is completely and totally unfair.
Because God is completely and totally unfair.
And thanks be to God for that. Thanks be to God for His unfairness.
In the immortal words of my long-suffering special ed teacher, “Fair is for cotton candy and candy apples.”
Justice, on the other hand, is for the Kingdom of God.