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Unfairness of the best possible kind

Kate Barrett | Tuesday, April 3, 2012

“See, my servant shall prosper, he shall be raised high and greatly exalted. Even as many were amazed at him – so marred was his look beyond that of man, and his appearance beyond that of mortals – so shall he startle many nations, because of him kings shall stand speechless.”

This verse from the prophet Isaiah (52:13-14) reflects on the “startling” and “amazing” appearance of the suffering servant of the Lord, that nameless character in Isaiah who comes to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. You can hear the full text of the reading on Good Friday and it continues on, asking, “Who would believe it? Everyone avoided him! People hid their faces from him!” Then, as if the prophet is realizing it himself as he speaks, he marvels, “The servant did this for us. We thought God had afflicted him, but he was crushed for our sins! He was pierced for our offenses – he gave his life for our sins. He was counted among the wicked for us; we who rejected him.”

My children – demonstrating a universal trait of childhood – are often quite preoccupied with what’s “fair.” One of them is almost fanatical about it and really was meant to be born in the Old Testament days of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” And though I sound just like my own parents (and I cringe when I say it), I do tell them, “Sometimes life isn’t fair.” While perhaps they may continue to wrestle into adulthood – as we all do – with when they can expect fair treatment and when they can’t, I believe that one of the most important lessons I can teach them is that our faith, hands down, isn’t fair. Our relationship with our savior, Jesus Christ, isn’t fair. Not a bit of it.

Years ago, you used to see billboards and other marketing outlets displaying an advertising campaign hoping to bring people back to Mass. They asked, “Can’t you spare an hour a week after all Jesus has done for you?” My take on it was that the signs more or less meant to guilt those who saw them into getting back into church on Sundays. So the assumption was that the reader, overwhelmed with sudden appreciation for Jesus’ willingness to die for him or her, would find a place of worship to attend for an hour a week. I suppose the signs were just meant as a starting point, a way of getting folks in the door who hadn’t been regulars for a while, but I always wondered about the implied “lowest common denominator” aspect of the message. So after spending an hour a week at Mass, you’d be “square” with God? Can you imagine someone thinking, “OK, Jesus; thanks so much for your sacrifice; now I’ve done my fair share.”

No, Christianity isn’t fair. In fact, it’s so far out of whack that on ESPN, they’d liken it to a game that had gotten “competitively out of hand.” However, we usually get all bent out of shape when we feel that someone hasn’t been fair to us, that we haven’t received “our fair share.”

This week, Holy Week, is a perfect time to remember that our relationship with God isn’t even about “fair.” It’s about love – love which isn’t the least bit worried about being 50-50, but is willing to be 110-0. It’s about love so forgiving that it gets sloppy, like the father of the prodigal son who hikes up his robes and runs out down the road. It’s about love so deep that it’s willing to get tough, tough enough to demand that we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It’s about love so humble that it’s willing to wash the dirty, crusty, aching feet of his companions, as we will hear proclaimed of Jesus in the Gospel on Holy Thursday.

Holy Week is about gratuitous unfairness of the best possible kind. The events of Jesus’ Passion are for all parents who know their children can never “pay them back,” except possibly by someday loving their own children. Jesus’ love provides an example for friends who stand by each other through illness and insecurity and thoughtlessness and pain, without keeping track of “who’s ahead.” This week is God’s gift to each one of us who stumbles along trying and trying again to follow what seems to be God’s will for us.

“Because of him kings shall stand speechless,” and so should we. We could not be luckier: Our God loves us so much that he gave us the never-ending gift of the life and death of his son and our savior Jesus Christ. We should forever be grateful that he’s willing to be so unfair.

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.