For all kinds of reasons, when you have children in your house you will undoubtedly hear the phrase "It's not fair!" Some of the time this phrase is directed at you as the parent, sometimes at teachers, fellow students, and yes like their parents they will take umbrage at some story going on in the wider world. Generally somewhere in the exchange between the parties in the debate a second phrase will follow "life is not fair!"
This is indeed true; human history has a catalogue of unfair events that will never, and can never be righted. However, the reason for pointing this out is usually not to inform people of some wider existential truth, it is to cut off debate so that the complaining party will get back to doing what they are supposed to do in your eyes. This common pattern happens in families, churches, towns, schools and yes even nations. Human beings seem to come prepackaged with an innate sense fairness for things we care about, while at the same time an unflappable ability to dismiss the complaints of our neighbors and even loved ones about things if it in any way inconvenience us.
Is God Fair?
The Bible is quite ambiguous about the concept of fairness. In the Torah fairness for all in the community is repeatedly affirmed. God will even appeal to Israel's sense of fairness when asking them to do good things. We read in Leviticus 19:33-34 "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God." (NRSV) Paul will also appeal to a sense of fairness when asking the churches he supervises to change their ways perhaps most infamously in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 "For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. "(NRSV).
However the Bible will often teach that some things are more important than fairness. When Paul talks about his own story, he tells of the wrong he did in Galatians 1:13 "You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. (NRSV) Yet he will say with confidence in Galatians 1:15-16 "But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me," (NRSV) Paul was not treated fairly; he was given grace. He was treated better than he deserved and given the gift of being accepted by a forgiving and loving God.
That fairness is not always the most important thing in life, may be best demonstrated how Jesus responds to the foreign widow who comes to him to have her daughter healed in Mark 7:27-29 (Jesus) said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter (NRSV) The woman's trust in the goodness of God makes all claims of fairness irrelevant. As James the Brother of our Lord would later write in James 2:13 "mercy triumphs over judgment". (NRSV)
Better than Fairness: Mercy
When Christ calls us to love others he is not calling us to treat people fairly; he is asking us to be better than fair. He is calling us to show mercy love and grace, just as he has done for us. Jesus says in Matthew 5:46-48 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV)
Over my 20+ years of ministry I have advocated that we as the church help those excluded by society for example, the homeless, immigrants and refugees. Sometimes people have pushed back and told me it was not fair. That may or may not be the case, but my point is that fairness is not the point. We show mercy to others because God has showed mercy to us through his son Jesus. I can only say that if I got what I deserved, I would not be blessed, but cursed. I have been saved by grace, so I hope to be a person of grace. My confession to you it that my results are mixed, I have not achieved the perfection Jesus has called me to and that is why I will still need God's mercy each and every day. If God was just fair, than I would have no hope. I have hope because God is better than fair, he is merciful.