Friday, December 19, 2008

Fair or not Fair?

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Mt 5:6)

Picture from Wikimedia. It is in the Public Domain.

When we think of someone who is righteousness, we think that he/she would be just and fair. In ancient times, Justice was depicted as a Goddess who had a sword in one hand and a set of scales in the other. The scales would determine if something was just and fair and the sword will be used effectively to ensure that the scales would be balanced.

Just what do we mean by ‘being balanced’ when speaking about something being just and fair?

Do we place the situation we place on one side of the scales and the consequence on the other? Is the charge on one side and the sentence on the other? Or would the accusation on one side and the evidence collected on the other?

When we were children, we usually decided fairness quantitatively. For example, everyone had the same size when sharing a cake, or we all had the same number of sweets. Things became complicated once there was a qualitative element. For someone who liked yellow coloured sweets, how many blue coloured sweets would be equivalent to one yellow coloured sweet? From the time we were able to distinguish quantitative and qualitative matters, we discovered a horrifying truth: There are many things in the world that aren’t fair!

This truth can lead us down many paths in life. We could try to make the world a fairer place to live in — we search out and champion the cause of right. On the other hand we could make use of the truth to our advantage. We could to take advantage of those who are not wise as us in the worldly sense. We could do worse and live with a pessimistic attitude, always being suspicious and lamenting the unfair world that we live in. For those of us who are Christian, we would look to the Beatitude as an ideal in life but could live in shades of the other paths as well.

We often forget the Christian understanding of righteousness when we talk about justice. We tend to confuse God’s righteousness with the human standards of what is right and just. I have heard Christians quoting bible passages and then preach a message that said that God hated sinners! Let us read the Scriptures carefully. God hated the sin but not the sinners! When sinners are ‘punished’ for their sin, it is not with the primary end of destroying the sinner. It was with the intention of purifying the community. This was done with great ferocity in the Old Testament. The story of Achan in the Book of Joshua comes to mind (see Joshua 7). In the New Testament, this same ferocity is seen on an individual level:
If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Mt 5:29-30)

However, Jesus had already taught that this teaching must take into consideration that Christian righteousness is not the same as human righteousness:
For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 5:18-20)

To “exceed” here does not merely mean “more severe” or “stricter”. It means to “go beyond”. We have to reach a higher or deeper level than what the Pharisees and the scribes taught. We usually paint the Pharisees and the scribes as the villains as opposed to Christ the hero in the Gospel stories, but the truth is that the Pharisees and the scribes were learned men whose faults lay in their inability to go beyond what was solely on the human level.

So, what does “hunger and thirst for righteousness” here mean? I believe it is summed up in the last few passages of Matthew chapter 5:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
(Mt 5:43-48)

We must seek out God’s righteousness and justice as described by Christ. God is perfectly just and merciful at the same time. He can be so because He is Love. A warped sense of justice comes from a hunger and thirst for righteousness motivated by love of justice. We need to hunger and thirst for a fairness that is motivated by the love for people. God’s love is for people afterall.

As a priest, I find this not an easy endeavour on my own. Like everything else Christian, this instruction from the Lord demands my submission to his grace. It is all too easy to admonish someone who has not followed a liturgical rule or some dictate of the Church’s administrative directives. It is so easy to feel superior to someone who had committed a mortal sin during confession. It is not so easy to help the person to keep to the right path being aware that I am also as weak as the one who had transgressed. I cannot be like the Pharisees and scribes, enforcing law and order. I have to be like Christ, uncompromising on the sin, merciful to the transgressor and directing him/her to the path that leads to eternal life. This is exactly what God’s righteousness demands of me as a priest.

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