Orthodox America

  Is Death Fair?

     There is one certainty in life, and that is death. We shall all die. Beyond this fact, however, nothing is certain: when, where, how, and what awaits us on the other side -- God alone knows, and those saints to whom He has chosen to reveal these things. Nevertheless, because it affects us so personally and so profoundly, the mystery of death invites our consideration. The secularization of our culture -- its focus on worldly pleasure and paradise on earth -- required for many years that discussion on the subject be largely private. Nowadays, however, it is increasingly being aired in the public square, as an essay in the local paper recently illustrated. It was not another report on the Hemlock Society or the courts grappling with the constitutionality of physician-assisted suicide (man ever seeking to be in control); rather it examined the deeper-seated psychological desire to find in death the kind of fairness that often eludes us in life. 

    Life can be terribly unfair: some people are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, while others who may be superior in goodness die with a coal scuttle in hand. Judging by the examples set forth in the above-mentioned essay, death appears to be equally biased. How many creative geniuses -Mozart, Keats, Raphael among them -- were struck down before even middle--age. How many children and youths have been claimed by accident and disease, which robbed them of the opportunity to grow up. Most of us can name close ones or acquaintances whose meeting with death was tragically premature -- at least from our human perspective.

      For us Christians, death does not present the same finitude as it does to unbelievers, But we share the same expectations of fairness that the human conscience has always carried: that evil will be punished and good rewarded. It is understandable, therefore, that we are disquieted on reading certain passages in Scripture which suggest that fairness is not always the rule. How many of us, especially among the cradle Orthodox, empathize with the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal Son? Or with the protest of the laborers who toiled from the first hour and received the same wage as those hired at the eleventh hour? But if we are disturbed by these passages, it is only because we apply human criteria to God's judgments, we lack the mind of Christ. Ultimately, it is a reflection of our lack of love and faith in God's goodness.

      It is God Who appoints for us the hour of death. Is God fair? Yes, by definition. Justice is one of the attributes of God, Who will render to every man according to his deeds, for there is no respect of persons with God (Rom. 2:6, I1) But if every man receives "according to his deeds," how is it that the laborers in the parable received the same wages for different amounts of work? Such a question reflects our human perspective, our tendency to judge on the basis of external circumstances, on appearances; we reckon according to the letter of the law -- the hours worked, the number of deeds. God alone sees what is in the heart of a man.

      Archbishop Nikon of Vologda, in .commenting on this parable, points out that the first laborers had no reason to complain: they received the agreed-upon wage, But they murmured out of envy, just as we have difficulty rejoicing in the good fortune and accomplishments of others. And they esteemed their work as being deserving of greater reward; they lacked the humility of those who consider themselves to be but "unprofitable servants" (Luke 17:10). Through such pride we can render void our good deeds. Those laborers called at the eleventh hour worked diligently and with gratitude, and it was the householder's good pleasure to reward them accordingly. Even so will God grant eternal blessedness to those who turn to Him with repentance at the end of their lives.

      How limited we are in our capacity to judge -- what is fair, what is unfair. Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich counsels: "Submit yourself to the will of God, and do not pry too closely into His judgments, for that can send you out of your mind. The judgments of God are innumerable and unfathomable.'' It is enough for us to know that, "All is governed by the goodness of the Lord" (Saint Basil the Great). Therefore, let us not think that death's arrival is untimely or unfair. Let us rather sing with the hymnographer: In the depths of Thy judgments, Christ, with fullness of wisdom Thou hast pre-ordained the end of each man's life, its appointed time and its manner. (Triodion, Matins for the Saturday before Meat-fare Sunday, ode 1).

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