“But Mah-ahm,” I can remember saying, always dragging the three-letter word ‘Mom’ into about seventeen syllables, “Why does she get to the movies without a grown-up, but I don’t?” She being my older sister, of course.
Or how about, “But Mah-ahm, my friends get to skip school on Senior Skip Day. Why can’t I?”
Or even, “But Mah-ahm, I worked so hard to graduate. It isn’t fair that I don’t get one more summer off.”
Whether I was ten or eighteen or twenty-two, just about any whine that started “But Mah-ahm” and appealed to some sense of universal fairness was answered with a simple statement, “Life’s not fair.” Thanks, Mah-ahm. No really, thanks, Mom.
It sounds like a harsh response. It felt like a harsh response at the time. It even seems a little harsh when I give it now, thirty-something years after I first started hearing it, but I can’t help myself from saying it because it’s true. Life isn’t fair. Oh, we’ve got some nice pithy statements to say when things seem fair, especially when they are “fair” in our favor - - “What goes around, comes around” - - or when we see someone getting what we consider their just desserts - - “You reap what you sow.” But really, when we get real honest about it all. Life’s not fair.
It’s frustratingly true. When we have worked hard, very hard, poured our life and time and energy into our job only to watch someone else get rewarded with a promotion, we wish things were fair. When we have treated everyone else nicely with nothing in return, given up our turn on the playground for someone who butted in line only to have the bell ring before we get to swing, shared a table in the cafeteria with someone who was lonely only to have them spread untrue rumors about us, it is painfully obvious that life is not fair. When we have cared for our bodies, paid attention to our health and still the doctor says “cancer” or when a baby is facing an early lifetime of surgeries before she is even born, we know it, we know it again and again - - life is not fair.
(What’s curious is why we rarely ask about the fairness of life when things are unfair in the OTHER direction – when we are less than kind to our health and live to a ripe old age having never been sick a day, when we narrowly miss a tragic traffic collision because we decided that call or that text was too important to ignore. We call those things “blessings” instead of waxing on about how unfair life is.)
Yet, for the most part, we long for fairness - - when you behave well, you are rewarded; when you behave badly, you are punished. Fairness is something we can wrap our brains around. It’s simple. It’s easy. Even when it doesn’t work out so well for us, it makes sense, and it makes our efforts toward positive living worthwhile. In some ways the order of fairness brings us comfort because it’s predictable. If life is fair we know how to adjust what we’re doing and interpret what’s happening around us.
The people who are with Jesus at the start of chapter 13 in Luke’s gospel bring him terrible news of his fellow Galileans who have been murdered by their governor, Pilate, and whose blood has been mingled with the blood of ritual sacrifices. We can hear their search for fairness echoed back to them in Jesus’s question about the sinfulness of those who have died. The people who bring him this news are trying to make sense of it all, trying to interpret what’s happened, and being human, liking order and predictability, they try to appeal to fairness.
Surely, they have assumed, these one who were killed were more sinful than we are. Right Jesus? That’s what made this all happen. Surely we’re going to be OK. Surely we are safe, because we are not like them. It wouldn’t be fair if someone good were killed, so surely they weren’t good.
But apparently Jesus and my mom took their lessons at the same place, because Jesus’s answer is about the same as hers, “Life’s not fair.”
OK, so he doesn’t say it that way, but that’s essentially what he says. “Do you think that because they suffered they are worse sinners than others?” That would be fair, right? Or maybe they ask not so much to bring comfort to themselves but to make themselves look better. Sometimes, just sometimes, we are tempted to watch someone else suffering and think “Whew! At least I didn’t do something to deserve that.” Jesus wants to nip that line of thinking in the bud. It will cause us to perish, he warns. It separates us from our neighbors to whom we are called to show compassion. It separates us from God who alone is judge. It is as deadly to our spirits as Pilate was to the Galileans, as a toppling tower is to those unsuspecting victims who are standing beneath it, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jesus wants to nip that line of thinking in the bud, so he tells them all a story, a parable. A fig tree isn’t producing as its owner would like. The owner is only upset about this one fig tree, so we can assume this probably isn’t a widespread problem in his vineyard. There’s just this one tree that isn’t bearing fruit, so he has what seems like a logical solution for a farmer, a business man. Why sink more resources into a fruitless tree? Why keep giving good life to an obviously defective plant? It makes no sense. Cut the tree down, cut our losses, and move on. It seems fair, right? If a tree isn’t doing what it’s supposed to, or if some Galileans or residents of Jerusalem, or my neighbors are sinning against God, cut them down.
But that’s not how life works. That’s not how God works. Thank GOD that’s not how God works. Life’s not fair, and God most certainly isn’t fair either. Who could ever live up to a standard of fairness? Who could ever bear enough fruit enough of the time? Who could ever be fruitful every day, every season, every harvest? None of us. None of us are perfect. None of us produce love and peace and compassion every minute of every day. None of us could live up if God’s love was based on fairness. And none of us bears fruit when we even bother trying, instead, we perish.
It’s when we try to live into some sort of standard of fairness, some sort of worldview when the good get rewarded and the bad get punished that we find ourselves asking “Isn’t she more sinful than me?” which quickly turns into “Aren’t I better than her?” which quickly turns into “Do we even need her around?” It’s when we try to live into some sort of standard of fairness that our solutions start to get drastic – Cut it down! End it here! Get rid of her!
But the gardener says, “No.” Care is never a waste. Compassion can never be overdosed. Because the gardener doesn’t operate out of a standard of fairness; he operates out of grace. Grace is the opposite of fairness. Grace is a second and a third and fourth chance. Grace is NOT being punished when it is deserved, and grace is the experience of being carried when we are too tired or too sick or too sad to walk for ourselves. Grace is sacrificial love poured out for even those who scatter away or try to reject it.
With his face set toward Jerusalem, Jesus is already aware of what he will meet when he gets there. Whether he knows it by some divine insight or whether he just sees the proverbial writing on the wall, he knows what he is moving toward as he moves toward that city. Jerusalem, which has been the final stop for many prophets before him who spoke frightening words to her people. Jerusalem, which has become the seat of oppressive Roman power that doesn’t like to hear Jesus talk of being Lord, when crucial to their power is the understanding that Caesar is Lord. Jerusalem, where he is sure the people won’t be able to sustain their shouts of “Hosanna” even if they believe at first that he is the one coming in the name of the Lord. With his face set toward Jerusalem, Jesus is aware that the branches of the tree are going to lack ripe sweet fruit, but Jesus doesn’t treat them fairly. He treats them with grace.
Like a mother hen, he says, he wants to gather them all under his wings. Like a mother hen, shelthering them from the fox of fairness, the king of punishments for the unrighteous, he wants to pull them close to his side. Even to the people who he knows will want to kill him, Jesus says “Come back. I want to nurture you and protect you from going an evil way.” That’s not fair. Life’s not fair! That’s grace.
So, to those of us who try to judge others’ sinfulness in order to make ourselves seem better--
To those of us who try to justify ourselves by good works and kind deeds-
Give up. Grace is not fair. Come back. That’s all that “repent” means. Jesus tells his followers and listeners “Repent” and we hear in those words a judgment. But “Repent” is not an indictment; it’s an invitation, an invitation to give up trying to save ourselves, an invitation to give up judging what is God’s alone to judge, an invitation to give up worrying about every little thing that happens, good or bad, that it might be a sign of the presence or absence of God’s love, an invitation to come back to the shelter wings of God our mother hen, and rest her warmth and grace.
A couple of years before his arrest and eventual execution for his part in anti-Hitler plots, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote this about grace and repentance:
“When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself – a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,…when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God…then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia [SEA: meaning repentance] and it is thus that he becomes a man and Christian.”*
Life is not fair. Thank God! Christ is not fair. And because of it when we give up trying to make something out of ourselves (especially when we do it by making something less of others) the wings and arms and God are already reaching around us, gathering us in grace and mercy. Life is not fair. Thanks be to God.
*Quote found in the Memoir introduction written by G. Leibholz.