“What do I owe you?” I asked the mechanic after he worked his magic under the hood of my car—a place largely foreign and mysterious to me. I didn’t expect his reply: “Don’t worry about it.” I was grateful, of course, but also a little uncomfortable, wondering if it was fair of me to leave without somehow settling the score, making things even. After all, he deserved something in return, didn’t he? Or maybe my discomfort came from my own belief that I didn’t deserve to get his time and expertise for free. Where is the justice in that, after all? We have a deep-seated expectation, I suppose, that justice is about evening things out, making sure that people get what they deserve. Of course, that works both ways, whether we’re responding to a gift given or an offense taken. I admit that on some occasions of feeling offended or poorly treated by someone else, I’ve replied with a snarly “May you get exactly what you deserve!” The self-righteousness of it leaves me feeling momentarily satisfied, trusting that my offenders know that what they really deserve is none too good.
The problem for me occurs when I take my expectations to scripture. When I rustle up the courage to look for examples of our o-so-common notions of fairness and justice in the life and words of Jesus, I come up empty-handed. What I find instead are some pretty—well, unjust, no?—teachings on the part of Jesus. There I find Jesus telling me that the Reign of God is like an employer who pays a full day’s wages to those who only worked an hour, without any sort of extra bonus to those who worked all day! Is that just? Where is the fairness in that? And what about that famous prodigal son who gets a party thrown for him after he wasted all his dad’s money? Is it any wonder that his brother was a little irked at the unfairness of it? And if someone steals your coat, don’t you think the sensible thing is to fight to get it back or at least report it to the police so they can track down the thief? But, no, Jesus says, “Give him your shirt as well.” Seriously, Jesus? Turn the other cheek? Give to those who ask? Love my enemies? That hardly seems fair, does it?
It doesn’t seem fair. In fact, it seems so unfair to most of us that for a couple thousand years preachers and scholars and pretty much everyone else reading scripture have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ words. “Well, what Jesus really meant was….” They rarely, however, come up with any accompanying explanation for why Jesus didn’t just say what he “really meant” in the first place.
If Lent is a time of preparation for Holy Week and Easter, it makes sense to ask just what exactly we are preparing for. In Christian belief, God sent Jesus to demonstrate very concretely to us what God and God’s love look like in this world, only to find that gift rejected. In fact, it was rejected on Good Friday with the greatest injustice imaginable: our imposition of the death penalty on Love itself. And then what? Then, in response to that injustice God turns around and replies on the Third Day with the most unfair, unjust response of all: God forgives! God effectively says, “Now the Good News really begins!” Now, seriously, can anyone who follows the Christian path really think that God’s response to us on Easter Sunday was fair?
Christian theology and philosophy typically tell us that justice is about rendering to God and to others that which is their due, that which they deserve. Our difficulty with this, it would seem, is that we have higher standards for deciding what others (and we ourselves) are due than God does. We tend to think that what people are due is what they have earned; Jesus says that what they are due is generosity. We are quick to say that those who have wronged us deserve to be brought to justice; Jesus says they are to be brought forgiveness.
Our notion of justice isn’t just one of many things that are nice to reflect on during Lent; rather, it lies at the heart of Lent itself. Lent invites us to ask a question that may seem very silly at first, but is dead serious: Is God just? Is God fair? And, if so, what do God’s justice and fairness look like? I daresay this: If God’s sense of justice and fairness resembled what ours tends to be, then Easter Sunday might have had a very different outcome.
Joseph F. Wagner is a Jesuit priest who is a favorite among the student body; his masses are often very well attended. He is currently in his 10th year as an associate professor in the mathematics department at Xavier University. When he is not instilling the wisdom of mathematical concepts, he can be found living with the honor students and athletes in Buenger Hall.