“. . . My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways” (Isa 55:8).
Let’s face it: God is not fair. The quote above from Isaiah is just one of many instances in which God has told us not to expect divine actions to conform to human norms. Still, we can’t quite get our heads (and our hearts) around the issue. If we were to be honest, how many of us think the older brother in today’s Gospel got a raw deal? In his complaint to his father we can almost hear him say “It’s not fair!” How many of us, in his shoes, wouldn’t say exactly that ourselves?
How have we gotten it so wrong?
We live in a country where fairness is both sought and expected. We don’t think it fair that the wealthy don’t pay their share of supporting our society. Our legal system aspires to fairness – handling everyone equally (or at least we expect it to). These ideals are surely not wrong – especially given the fact that, as fallible humans, we cannot assess true need. Fairness is about the only way most of us have to distribute the varied goods of our society – the things to which we have a right, either by birth or by citizenship. But these expectations founder when we move to the level of divine love. Sure, the prodigal didn’t “deserve” the welcome he got, anymore than his brother “deserved” his father’s love. The prodigal at least admitted it.
Love isn’t a human commodity even when we humans act out of love; love is a divine gift. None of us deserves God’s forgiveness and acceptance. Nevertheless God offers them without strings. Today’s first reading, from the prophet Micah, makes that abundantly clear. God “removes guilt and pardons sin . . . does not persist in anger but delights rather in clemency . . . treading underfoot our guilt”. And Jesus, in Luke’s gospel, tells a story that acts out that divine love in terms impossible to miss. What we have to do is to drop our concerns for deservedness and accept what God freely offers.
Look at the negative side of the transaction in today’s Gospel. As soon as I say (or think) “It’s not fair”, where’s my focus? Why, it’s on me, ME! God is not focused on God’s self, God is focused instead on self-giving. God is self-giving (1 John 4:8). How can I be, in any sense, true to the image in which I am made, the image and likeness of God, when I am concerned first about me? About getting my fair share?
I suspect that, at some level, most of us feel that God couldn’t possibly love us. We know we’re not deserving, but we don’t seem to understand that that doesn’t matter. God knows us better than we know ourselves, but God cares about us and for us anyhow. Not grasping that truth in the depth of our being, is, I think, where the train starts to go off the tracks.