The Common Good

Louis C.K. on Our Neighbor’s Bowl and What 'Fair' Is

Writing books is a strange process. When you’re in the middle of creating something this big, it tends to consume your every waking moment in some way. I can’t watch TV or have a conversation with a neighbor without my mind searching the content for narrative or thematic threads to weave into the chapter I’m working on. It can be a little bit maddening, at least for those around us, I expect. But I love it.

Scales of justice, senk / Shutterstock.com
Scales of justice, senk / Shutterstock.com

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One unlikely wonderful source for material as of late for me has been the show “Louie,” by comedian Louis C.K. To say he’s irreverent would be underselling his shock value. He’s a little bit like Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park fame in that he levels the playing field of propriety simply by making nothing off limits. Some might not be able to get past his coarse and occasionally nihilistic approach to life, but I consider him to be nothing short of prophetic in his observations about the human condition.

I’ve been working most recently on a chapter about God’s notion of justice as compared with the human idea of justice, and once again, C.K. provided a wealth of material. I’m watching through the seasons On Demand with my wife, Amy, and last night, we watched an episode in which Louie is preparing a special meal for his kids. He has an extra slice of mango left over after making smoothies for his two daughters, and so he offers it to his oldest. Not surprising, the younger daughter takes some issue with this apparent injustice.

“She got a mango popsicle and I didn’t,” she whines, although the so-called popsicle really just is a slice of fruit speared with a fork. But the fact that her sister got one and she didn’t makes it the most important slice of mango in the world at that moment.

“That’s right,” he says, and continues cooking. Sometimes she gets things you don’t and sometimes, it goes the other way. That’s just how life works."

“But daddy,” she pleads, “it’s not fair!”

“Who said anything about fair?” he asks, a little incredulous. “You were just fine without it until she got it. What’s the problem?”

“It’s just not fair,” she insisted. “If she gets one, I should get one too.”

“Look,” he says, turning toward her and leaning down to meet her eyes “the only time you need to worry about what’s in your neighbor’s bowl is if you’re checking to make sure they have enough.” Then he turns back to the stove and the girl, a little stunned, walks away.

Wow.

Time and again, we see examples in the Bible of God’s “unfair” justice. The story of the Prodigal Son is unfair to the more faithful son who stays behinds and tends to his father’s estate. The vineyard laborers who work for only an hour and get the same wage as those who worked all day seem unfairly compensated when compared with those whose hands are blistered and bleeding from a full day’s labor. Adam and Eve didn’t get what they had coming. The examples go on and on.

But if Jesus is, in fact, the example to which we look, let’s consider for a moment the point at which he is near death on the cross, abandoned by all who claimed to love him, taunted and tortured by figures of authority, and all because he refused to abandon his message of radical, empire-shaking love that stood firm in the face of any force, fear, or hate intent on its destruction.

Talk about unfair.

And in the culminating moment, when Jesus would be justified in calling out in despair about this injustice, condemning those who fell so woefully short, he calls on God to offer them mercy and forgiveness: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

How is this possible? How can anyone see past such grief and suffering, still fully resting within the embrace of that radical love about which he preached?

It’s not something we’ll ever entirely understand, at least not in this life. This is one of those examples I look to and say that I’m glad God is God and I’m not. I can’t even look at my neighbor’s car/home/job/whatever and not think about myself, let alone keep others at the center of my heart when even they are the ones with hammer and nail in hand.

But it is something toward which we can look, over and again, something toward which we can reorient ourselves when we’ve lost our way once again, something toward which we can take small, tentative steps, day after day, even if we stumble and fall back occasionally along the way.

It is the summit toward which the arc of history bends. It is “Thy kingdom come.” And fortunately for all of us, it’s anything but fair.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He is Director if Church Growth and Development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called "PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

Scales of justice, senk / Shutterstock.com

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