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It doesn’t seem fair, but it is perfect justice

Kate Barrett | Thursday, September 15, 2011

Raise your hand if on either of the last two Saturdays you thought to yourself, “Oh, how nice for Skip Holtz to come back to his alma mater and take home a win!” or, “Good for Michigan! What a great feeling to stage such a big comeback!”

Before you turn the page in disgust, I can assure you that I most certainly did not think either of those things, or anything even remotely close to them. I doubt that Coach Kelly encourages his players to ponder too deeply the feelings of their opponents across the line of scrimmage as they prepare to plow into them.

Outside the field of competition, where we all share more in common than anything that divides us, our attitudes ought to be more generous.

Across the planet, the truth runs consistently and firmly through the midst of creeds, cultures and religions otherwise widely diverse, that we ought to rejoice with sincere generosity in the good fortunes of others. And we probably do — to an extent. I imagine we all like to think of ourselves as people who live generously: we share with others, just like our moms taught us; we offer our time and our talents as volunteers; we donate to causes and organizations whose values we hold dear.

But how kind-hearted are we when generosity collides with justice … which it inevitably will?

Consider the gospel story for this Sunday, which should have you squirming in your seats at Mass this weekend. We all know this parable and it bothers us each time we hear it, because we feel a fundamental resistance to its message. Jesus tells the story of a landowner who hires laborers to work in his vineyard. In fact, he goes out at dawn and then four more times that day, offering work to those who cannot seem to get hired anywhere else.

You remember the ending: at the close of the day, the landowner pays a full day’s wage to the workers who only put in an hour, giving high hopes to those who had been at it since dawn that they would take home more money than they had seen in quite a while. When it becomes clear that the landowner intended to pay everyone one full day’s wage, the grumbling begins. “Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?” responds the landowner. “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Can’t you just picture the disciples listening to Jesus tell this parable, then politely stumbling and stammering to agree that yes, indeed the last shall be first and the first shall be last, while each silently protesting, “Is he nuts?”

Generosity just crashed into justice in that gospel, and justice lost yardage — or at least that’s true for our human understanding of what’s just. “It’s not fair!” we cry. But as we will pray together to God in our opening prayer on Sunday, “the perfection of justice is found in your love.” And if we believe that God is God and we’re not, we will spend less time trying to argue our way around the logic of this most lavish landowner and more time shoring up the foundations of true generosity in our own lives. We certainly have many opportunities to practice! Think of all the times in a day or a week when we are invited to share in another’s good fortune: the guy who sits next to you in calculus gets an A on his test; your roommate gets the summer internship she’s been hoping for; that person down the hall who always used to look sort of dumpy clearly did P90X for the entire summer and now looks just as awesome as those aggravating ads claim. Are we really, truly pleased for them? Can we call upon the generosity of spirit to rejoice sincerely with them or does a tiny voice of resentment whisper to us, “OK, how did he know exactly what to study when I spent all those hours on the material and got a B?”

God challenges us to turn our lives and our assumptions upside down in so many ways. We probably shouldn’t be surprised that his demand for our lavish generosity of heart stretches every fiber of our sometimes-selfish beings.

And what of Michigan State this weekend? I suppose we recognize these truths on the football field, or any arena of competition, as good sportsmanship. Just as we hope and even expect our team to stretch themselves to the limits of their abilities in the game, may our lives and attitudes reflect our ongoing attempts to stretch ourselves toward God’s extravagant examples of generosity and compassion.

Kate Barrett is the director of the Emmaus Program in Campus Ministry. She can be reached at kbarrett@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.