"That's not fair! It's not fair, mommy!" I was in a food court at the mall, minding my own business, getting ready to enjoy my vanilla milkshake-a deserved reward for enduring the frustration of shopping I didn't want to do. I was so tired, and so hungry, and I had been looking all over for this shake, and then I found the Johnny Rockets stand and I was so happy when I got the last shake, just before they closed. These two kids at the table next to me were fighting over splitting a Hershey?s candy bar. Not the solid milk chocolate with the squares, but the one with almonds. There is absolutely no way to break it into equal shares. "NOT FAIR! He got a bigger piece," said the most annoying child, followed by the response of her brother: "She got three almonds?I didn't get any.? The mother devised a solution: she let one of them break another candy bar in half?and then the other child got to pick the portion he thought was bigger. It was fascinating to watch them try break it in half with the attention and precision of a neurosurgeon ... always insuring that the other one didn't get too much. The boy started to protest and abruptly got up to get a better angle on the surgery and of course he wasn?t looking, and he knocked my untouched vanilla shake onto the floor, where the entire contents spilled out in a white river of beaten ice cream, syrup and milk. The boy didn?t notice what he had done, of course?he was still so preoccupied by his task of chocolate justice, but his mother did. She apologized to me, pointed out to her son what he had done and yelled at him. She didn?t offer to buy me another, but it wouldn?t have mattered: Johnny Rockets was closed, and there was no milkshake justice for me. It isn?t fair, I wanted to scream out at no one in particular in the food court, but I didn?t. Life isn't fair. I know that.
A divorced mother of three preschoolers should have to work at two part-time jobs and raise her children alone while her irresponsible ex-husband parties and plays and neglects child support. A young father of two little girls should die suddenly of a heart attack while on vacation with his family. A 10-year-old boy is killed by a drunk driver while the driver "escapes" with only bruised ribs and a hangover. CEOs of failing corporations never seem to suffer financially when employees are laid off and businesses fail. When stuff like that happens, all you can do sometimes is shake your head and wonder why. But it doesn?t have to be that dramatic. Life often brings other kinds of injustice, right? Do you ever struggle over: Why you're not more naturally gifted? Why you're too old or too young for a key position that opened up at work? When the family you came from is really messed up? Have you ever felt it was unfair that you had the father you did? Or mother? Or sister? Or brother? Have you ever felt it was unfair that you were born with your body shape, or size, or the color of your eyes or skin, or maybe a birth defect? Why "cheaters" prosper and get more, while you're honest and you seem to have less? /p>
Life isn't fair. It?s the issue that the Gospel offers us. Jesus tells the familiar parable of the landowner who hires workers at different times of the day and pays them exactly the same amount even though some have worked longer than others. Those who have worked longer complain about it to the owner, telling him it's unjust, it's not fair. And the owner tells them it's none of their business--they got the money they were promised, that's all that matters.
I had a situation with some students last semester that reminded me of today's Gospel. They complained about their grades, comparing their grades to their classmates grades, telling me that I was unjust and unfair because they felt they deserved more than the others. I even got a phone call from a parent, who in my opinion should not have been involved at all. I wasn't quite as sure of myself as the owner in Jesus' parable and I actually changed a few grades because I didn't want to seem unfair even though I didn't think I really was unfair. But what got to me, I guess, was the attitude, an attitude I see all too often in college students, all too often in humans, all too often in myself.
Most of us humans have an attitude of disappointment, discontent, dissatisfaction. All too often we're looking over someone else's shoulder and comparing what they've got with what's not--for us. It's often a material matter---their house, their car, their job versus mine, who's got better looks than me, who's got more teeth, more brains, more heart than me, who's got more luck, who got more bucks, how is it that they're more loved, more blessed, more powerful than me? It's a condition, an attitude, that goes all the way back--I guess--to Adam and Eve, when human beings first looked out upon the world and forgot Whose Love it was that created them and sustained them, Whose Love sheltered them and fed them and kept them safe from all dangers.
The same Love that keeps us, enfolds us, that promises us we will never be forgotten, not for one minute, not for one second, the Love that satisfies our every need, our every real want---and the problem is, we've forgotten that, and at times we've got the attitude that my Hershey bar neighbors had. You know what? I think I like dogs better than kids?whether they are little, like at the mall, or big, like at my college. You see, the reason why I like dogs better than kids, and even sometimes better than myself, is because they're not so smart to be dissatisfied, discontent, disappointed. Like all natural living things below the human, they know the true justice of God, they know, instinctively, they will be cared for and loved all the days of their lives, and they live, then, a lovely, beautiful natural attitude of gratitude which makes them jump and wag whenever they see you again. They do not worry about someone else's grades or someone else's salary.
I think this is something dogs can teach us. An attitude of gratitude, which would make our lives an offering to God, which would make us smile a lot more to one another and maybe even wag our tails.
Recently a student came to see me. His arrival at my door was a little complicated, and when he came into the room we had to move some furniture around. To get his wheelchair into the room we had to move some things that were in the way. All his life, growing up in the hills of Pennsylvania he was like a pup?running free, climbing up hills, leaping for balls, yelping joyfully in play. A couple of years ago on a cross country run his legs gave out and he fell in a heap, and when the medics came to check him out the only thing he could feel was the warmth of the sun upon his face. "The sun felt so good," he told me. "Even though I couldn't feel the rest of my body, at that moment, I was really grateful for the sun." Two years later, he can feel his upper body, and he has some use of his hands, but below his waist he's numb. He just got one of those electric wheelchairs, and he's getting pretty good at maneuvering it around in tight spaces like my office. But you have to see this kid, all 19 years of him, his face glowing from some inner fuel, you have to hear his gratitude for what he does have and for what he can do. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the rest of my life," he told me on Friday, "but I want to help other people like people have been helping me." I sat there across from him in his wheelchair and marveled at this kid, Christopher Reeves in the flesh before me, thinking of course, about how small and complaining and ungenerous and ungrateful I can often be.
Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
Life isn't fair. But I know One who is fair?and He can be trusted. We should be grateful, even as a river of melted vanilla ice cream works its way across the floor.
"For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God who does not show partiality..." (Deuteronomy 10:17).