Sermon at St Matthias’ Church, Killiney, Co Dublin on Friday, 24th December 2004
Life is not fair.
I used to think it could be made fair. I used to think I could help change the world. When I was a teenager, I was fired up; society was going to change, my country would become a fair and a just place. I joined the British Labour Party when I was 17, but soon got fed up with the dithering politics of Jim Callaghan, who was the British Prime Minister at the time, and I drifted out to the far Left. I became involved with the Militant Tendency, a Trotskyite group, who had a vision of a new world of a world they believed to be fair. They believed in the state taking ownership of everything; they believed they could achieve a society where there would be no cash because everyone would have everything they needed; they believed that everyone would work for the good of everyone else. I soon got fed up with them, partly because I was studying history and knew that revolutions just meant that one bad government was just replaced by an even worse one, and partly because I knew people were just not like that; people were basically selfish, there was no way they would work for the common good.
As the years passed I realised more and more that life was not fair, that the good guys rarely won and that people rarely got what they deserved. My first visit to the Third World was fourteen years ago next week. I still have very vivid memories of a face I saw on that trip; the face of a little boy. He and his mother travelled on the bus for a short part of the journey. Perhaps he was two years old. He was dressed in a woolly hat and a tee shirt, possibly the only clothes he had. He sat on his mother’s lap and he stared at me. Perhaps he hadn’t seen many Europeans, perhaps he was just curious. I smiled at the little boy and thought about my own little boy who was 3 months old and was 8,000 miles away. Life was not fair. Why did the little boy on the bus not get the same chances as my own little boy?
Even if all the economic injustice in the world could be remedied, even if the poor countries got the help they needed and the rotten governments were thrown out and everyone got a chance, life would still not be fair.
I spent seven years in a country parish where one of the families was the kindest and the best people you could ever hope to meet. They were farming people with names being past down through the generations. There was David, known as Davey, and his son, David, who was called Dee, and naturally the grandson on the farm would have been David as well, except there were four granddaughters, so when the first great grandson was born, he was David. When he was eighteen months old he fell suddenly and broke a leg, it seemed a strange occurrence. Two months later he started showing signs of losing his balance. He was taken for tests which showed an inoperable brain tumour. He died at the age of 21 months—eleven years ago this Christmas. Standing at his graveside, no-one would ever again tell me that life was fair.
Life is not fair and life was never fair.
Look at the Christmas story, do you think it’s a fair? Mary, a Jewish teenage girl is pregnant and is under suspicion. She could have faced being stoned to death. Even Joseph is uncertain about this and is only convinced when he has a vision of an angel.
They are poor and, like all poor people, they get pushed around by people in authority. They are forced to travel seventy miles to Bethlehem because of bureaucracy. When they get there they have to sleep in an animal shed because of the people of this town can’t show enough hospitality to find them a place indoors. The girl’s baby is born amongst the muck and the filth of this byre without even the most basic of facilities. The townspeople couldn’t care less. The only people who bother with them are gang of shepherds, men at the absolute bottom of the social spectrum. Was this fair?
The child is no sooner born than Herod, the local petty tyrant starts having babies killed because he fears a threat to his power. Mary and Joseph and their baby escape—but what about the babies that didn’t? What about those murdered by Herod’s men? Was this fair?
Jesus and his mother are taken off to Egypt as refugees, by Joseph who has to support them by earning what he can as a carpenter. Herod finally dies and they return to live in Galilee after perhaps two years as refugees. Was this fair?
Read on through the story and there is no fairness. John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, a few months older than him, is brutally beheaded because of the drunken lust of Herod who wants to please his lover. This Herod is the son of the Herod who had the babies killed. Was any of this fair?
Finally, Jesus himself is executed because the religious and the political powers didn’t like him asking questions all the time. He was too dangerous and had to be destroyed.
Life is not fair.
There must have been moments when Mary railed against God over things that happened. There must have been moments when she stood and she shouted, ‘God, this is not fair’. Countless millions of people down though the centuries have had cause to say those words, ‘this is not fair’. I remember one black moment when I was a curate, when I had visited a house where two little girls had died in tragic circumstances, and I got into my car and sat in tears punching the steering wheel and saying, ‘God, this is not fair’.
Life is not fair and life would be senseless if it were not for the birth of this child in Bethlehem. This child grows and lives through unfairness after unfairness. At the age of 33 he lies dead in a borrowed tomb. Then on a bright spring Sunday morning he walks out alive, destroying the power of death.
Life is not fair—but God comes down to Bethlehem and shares our lives with us and says to each of us tonight that we have the chance to share his life with him.