John Shea gave me those words, and I understood them a little better recently as I stood in line at an airport: I’d checked in for a flight, approached security, saw a huge line-up and accepted the fact that it would take at least 40 minutes to get through it.
I was alright with the long wait and moved patiently in the line – until, just as my turn came, another security crew arrived, opened a second scanning machine, and a whole line-up of people, behind me, who hadn’t waited the forty minutes, got their turns almost immediately. I still got my turn as I would have before, but something inside of me felt slighted and angry. “This wasn’t fair! I’d been waiting for forty minutes and they got their turns at the same time as I did!” I’d been content waiting, until those who arrived later didn’t have to wait at all. I hadn’t been treated unfairly, but some others had been luckier than I’d been.
That experience taught me something beyond the fact that my heart isn’t always huge and generous. It helped me understand something about Jesus’ parable concerning the workers who came at the 11th hour and received the same wages as those who’d worked all day and what is meant by the challenge that is given to those who grumbled about the unfairness of this: “Are you envious because I’m generous?”
Are we jealous because God is generous? Does it bother us when others are given unmerited gifts and forgiveness?
You bet! And ultimately that sense of injustice, of envy that someone else caught a break is a huge stumbling block to our happiness. Why? Because something in us reacts negatively when it seems that life is not making others pay the same dues as we’re paying.
In the gospels we see an incident where Jesus goes to the synagogue on a Sabbath, stands up to read, and quotes a text from Isaiah – except he doesn’t quote it fully but omits a part. The text (Isaiah 61,1-2) would have been well known to his listeners and it describes Isaiah’s vision of what will be the sign that God has finally broken into the world and irrevocably changed things. And what will that be?
For Isaiah, the sign that God is now ruling the earth will be good news for the poor, consolation for the broken-hearted, freedom for the enslaved, grace abundant for everyone, and vengeance on the wicked. Notice, though, when Jesus quotes this, he leaves out the part about vengeance. Unlike Isaiah, he doesn’t say that part of our joy will be seeing the wicked punished.
In heaven, we will be given what we’re owed and more (unmerited gift, forgiveness we don’t deserve, joy beyond imagining), but, it seems, we will not be given that catharsis we so much want here on earth, the joy of seeing the wicked punished.
The joys of heaven will not include seeing Hitler suffer. Indeed the natural itch we have for strict justice (“An eye for an eye”) is exactly that, a natural itch, something the gospels invite us beyond. The desire for strict justice blocks our capacity for forgiveness and thereby prevents us from entering heaven where God, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, embraces and forgives without demanding a pound of flesh for a pound of sin.
We know we need God’s mercy, but if grace is true for us, it has to be true for everyone; if forgiveness is given us, it must be given everybody; and if God does not avenge our misdeeds, God must not avenge the misdeeds of others either. Such is the logic of grace and such is the love of the God to whom we must attune ourselves.
Happiness is not about vengeance, but about forgiveness; not about vindication, but about unmerited embrace; and not about capital punishment, but about living beyond even murder.
It is not surprising that, in some of the great saints, we see a theology bordering on universalism, namely, the belief that in the end God will save everyone, even the Hitlers. They believed this not because they didn’t believe in hell or the possibility of forever excluding ourselves from God, but because they believed that God’s love is so universal, so powerful, and so inviting that, ultimately, even those in hell will see the error of their ways, swallow their pride, and give themselves over to love. The final triumph of God, they felt, will be when the devil himself converts and hell is empty.
Maybe that will never happen. God leaves us free. But, when I, or anyone else, is upset at an airport, at a parole-board hearing, or anywhere else where someone gets something we don’t think he or she deserves, we have to accept that we’re still a long ways from understanding and accepting the kingdom of God.