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  • Is God Unfair?

    via Catholic Exchange

    by Mark Giszczak

    mark giszczak“That’s not fair!” We usually hear this phrase when a child talks back to his or her parent, or when an athlete disagrees with a call made by the referee. Sometimes we hear “That’s not fair!” bubbling up inside ourselves when we are slighted or receive less-than-preferential treatment. The noise of protest can rise to fever pitch inside us when we witness tragedy, loss, innocent suffering. Our indignant response to unfair circumstances stems from a good place—the corner of our hearts that desires justice. Yet often our complaint is a mere fig leaf, attempting to place the blame somewhere else when it rests squarely on our own shoulders.


    In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel quotes the exiled people of God who are suffering in Babylon as saying: “The Lord’s way is not fair!” (Ezek 18:25 NAB) It is important to recognize that the few verses presented in this reading come at the conclusion of a chapter-long response to the people’s complaint. The trouble is the Jews in exile in Babylon are looking back on the history of the kingdom of Judah and its sinful kings and people. They see correctly that their forefathers’ sins brought God’s judgment against his own people and led them into exile (1 Kgs 20:16-18; 2 Chr 36:16). The exiles consider themselves to be suffering because of the sins of their fathers and they descry God’s injustice at punishing the sons and grandsons on account of their ancestors’ sins. Ezekiel, however, will turn the tables on the critics and announce that they are suffering because of their own, personal sins.

    Inherit Punishment?

    Where do the exiled people of God get the idea that they are being punished for their fathers’ sins? Early on, in the context of giving the Ten Commandments, the Lord announces that he is “a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me” (Exo 20:5 RSV). There are two ways we can look at this idea: First, we could say that children truly experience the penalty of their parents’ sins. Second, we could say that children experience the nasty consequences of their parents’ sins. That is, the children of a gambling addict become destitute, the children of a bank robber lose their father-figure to prison, the children of a drug addict might have health problems related to their parents’ drug use.


    In the first interpretation, the punishment of children for their fathers’ sins makes little sense. Why punish someone for what he or she did not do? But in the second interpretation, we see the dark side of the interconnectedness of humanity. It is great to be interconnected when things go well—to inherit wealth, health and love from one’s parents. But when things get ugly and Mom and Dad hand down poverty, sickness and broken relationships, our familial inter-connection feels more like a curse than a blessing.

    Avoiding Responsibility

    The exiles are objecting to God’s ways, because they are taking the first interpretation, that they are being penalized for things that happenedgod unfair before they were born, punished unfairly for sins they did not commit. On the one hand, they fail to see that the “punishments” or “consequences” of sin can last for generations as natural outcomes of disobedience to God. Disobedience leads to death: “for the iniquity which he has committed he shall die” (Ezek 18:26 RSV). But on the other hand, the exiles of Ezekiel’s generation fail to recognize their own sinfulness. They are suffering the consequences of their own sin.

    Personal Accountability

    Now we too have inherited sin. The Catechism says we are all “implicated in Adam’s sin” (sec. 389) even though it is not our own “personal fault” (sec. 405). This original sin—the first sin of Adam and Eve—has sadly far-reaching consequences. It broke humanity’s harmonious relationship with God and introduced suffering and death into the human experience. While we are delivered from original sin at Baptism, we still live in a fallen world, shaped by sin. When we experience the negative consequences of our own sin, it would be tempting to shake a fist at God and say, “That’s not fair!” But ultimately, Ezekiel proclaims, “the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezek 18:20 RSV). We are personally accountable to God for our actions. He does not distribute penalties willy-nilly, but “he will render to every man according to his works” (Rom 2:6 RSV).

    Life and Death

    Ezekiel describes the economics of human action clearly: sin brings death, virtue leads to life. This pattern was established early on the history of Israel. Obedience to the covenant always led to life in the Promised Land, in God’s presence, while disobedience invoked the covenant curses and led to exile and death. The same is true now: disobedience to God brings curse (“the wages of sin is death” Rom 6:23) and obedience to God brings life (“new life in the Spirit” Rom 7:6). But of course, we cannot save ourselves. Instead, we depend on the one “act of righteousness” of Jesus for our deliverance from sin and all of its terrible consequences (Rom 5:18). By his virtue, his righteousness, on which we depend by faith, he brings the blessing of eternal life in which we can share.

    While we might like to reject God’s justice as “unfair” just like the ancient exiles, Ezekiel reminds us to accept responsibility for our actions, confess our sins, and come to God in humble repentance. He promises, even here in the Old Testament, to forgive our sins and preserve the life of those who turn away from evil and turn toward him. Now that’s preferential treatment!

  • Fr. John Riccardo at i.d. 916

    May 2, 2013

    Fr. John Riccardo speaks at the i.d. 916 meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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