Gospel Reflection for Sept. 20, 2020, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Father Koch: The just thing isn’t always fair
In preaching on the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells the disciples about the parable of a landowner who pays all who worked in his vineyard the same wage, even though they did not all work the same number of hours. The text of this parable runs rough against our usual sense of what we often call “justice.” On one level, this is rather politically charged as in our country we are still arguing about just compensation and wage gaps between various sectors of employees. Jesus is not, however, directing our attention to just wages, but rather to a deeper sense of justice.
The undercurrent that needs to come to the fore is the distinction between what is fair and what is just. We often confuse the two, treating the two as synonyms, while the distinction between them is usually very clear. As Christians we are not called to be fair, we are called to be just.
When one seeks to be fair, one usually is reflecting on a sense of proportionality and a sense of equality in outcome. Here we try not to favor one over another. Often, we think of fairness in parenting. It seems easy to be fair. It is the moral equivalent of being nice. However, it makes no demands and often accomplishes little other than maintaining the status quo. Too often it comes with other unintended consequences that are also solved by being fair and nice. In an exaggerated sense, this comes to the point where everyone gets a trophy. To be fair is often the lazy person’s sense of justice.
Often when we think of justice, our thoughts turn immediately to the legal system. Justice is exacted as a punishment for a crime committed against either persons or the state. While this is a sense of justice, certainly as we have understood it since Aristotle, religious justice takes us in a different direction.
First, we must always understand that justice essentially reflects our duty toward God – to follow the Commandments and to live our lives reflecting those Commandments. This, then, would harken us to the great Shemah – that we are called to love God with the totality of our lives.
We also know that Jesus added another dimension to this profession of faith when he said, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Justice, then, takes on another dimension; it calls us to act in love for the spiritual welfare of the other. Dovetailing on the lessons we have heard from Jesus over the past several weeks we can contextualize this parable within the framework of fraternal correction, and in the extreme demand to forgive one another.
So now, Jesus calls us to justice. Justice is often not “fair” and it is seldom “nice.” Justice makes demands on us, calls us to sacrifice and draws us into an awareness of our need to live within the context of a community keeping in mind the bigger picture. This is far more challenging. Unlike being fair or being nice, justice is predicated on love, often expressing what is called “tough love.”
The Lord makes promises to us and he fulfills those promises. God’s kingdom is grounded in this justice. God does promise to be fair, only to be just.
Today, Jesus teaches us a few important lessons on justice. First, we are due only what we are due. The laborers who expected more because they worked more were certainly satisfied with their wages at the beginning of the day. It is only when they learn that those who worked less earned the same that they demanded more. We might say it is fair – but is it just? The landowner is right to assert that he is free to do with his money what he wants and that he sees his actions toward all the workers as just and honest.
This steps on our cultural sense of entitlement. When taken to its natural and logical conclusions this conversation opens us to a wide range of considerations on social, political and personal levels. The Lord’s call to exercise justice and not fairness demands that we live lives of mercy grounded in love. That is a lot more difficult than to just be fair.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.