What’s the difference between justice and ‘an eye for an eye’? I mean, if you were to ask the average person on the street to explain what justice is, I’m guessing they would come up with something like ‘justice is when someone gets back exactly what they gave out. If someone tortures another person, justice has only fully been served when the perpetrator is caused to suffer to the exact same degree (even if not in the exact same way)’. That to me seems the current opinion or feeling about justice. Basically, it’s fairness. Maybe even karma. Would you agree?
I’m pretty sure most Christians would agree with the above. What bothers me is that many Christians seem to think and imply that there is something sacred about justice defined in this way, something holy and godly. It is a standard that God can not let slip if he is to remain holy (whatever ‘holy’ truly means).
And yet for a long time, I’ve had a nauseating revulsion for this kind of justice. Somewhere amongst the genocide in Rwanda, the conflict between Israel/Palestine and the constant suicide bombings elsewhere, I had enough. Whilst I absolutely feel anger at some of the sickening things that happen in this world because of humans, I can not for the life of me see how re-enacting those sickening things makes the world a holier place. It truly does just heap darkness on to piles of darkness.
Somewhere amongst my piles of books I remember reading the account of a man whose daughter was murdered. He spent years trying to bring the murderer to ‘justice’. Eventually the murderer was found, tried and sentenced to death. A jubilant journalist asked the father if he was happy now, because justice had been done. What a stupid question. The father wearily responded, ‘there will never be justice until I have my daughter back’. That, I think, is touching on real justice. God’s justice. To have things restored and put actually right, not karma-right. Once again, I owe it to (Bishop) Tom Wright for painting this portrait of God’s real justice for me, straight out of the Old Testament prophets.
When Jesus comes along, he doesn’t seem to have much taste for our understanding of justice. I’ve blogged on this before, but it seems a ridiculously important notion to me. Just read Luke 6:27-36. Jesus actually says that although previous instruction from God had consisted of ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth’, he is now replacing this with a better (virtually opposite) way, in other words ‘do good to those who do bad to you’. He even states that if you only do good to those who do good to you (i.e., be fair, give what you get), what good is that? You can only be a child of the father if you are like him, and he is good to all irrespective of their behaviour. It seems that our kind of justice is not so godly after all. Mercy is the stamp of godliness and God’s kids. Maybe justice isn’t even so holy (shock, gasp). Maybe it’s far too obviously human; after all, fairness just makes sense doesn’t it? How would anything work without it? Living without the highest regard for fairness seems stupid to us and likely to lead to mayhem and (God forbid) door-mat-ness!
Recently, all this was made much more real to me by Timothy Keller’s little book, ‘The Prodigal God’. I know many of us have heard the story of The Prodigal Son a million times and we love the way it tells of God’s open arms for us wayward wanderers. But there’s so much more to this story, in particular if you feel, like me, more like the older brother, the brother who seems genuinely hard done by. I feel his pain and frustration. The whole situation for him seems so unfair. Heck, it is unfair. But fairness is not the point. Fairness misses the point. And so it seems so often with us Christians, even down to how we view the purpose, working and meaning of the cross.
So I want to go through what Timothy Keller has written and highlight the newer things which stood out to me. I’m not going to tell the whole story but just try to pull out the points, so sorry if they’re disjointed. Also, I’m no good at concise so I think this will have to span a couple of blogs – sorry! I’ll keep trying to cut things down in future!
This story basically turns upside down what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, ‘sin’/doing bad things and being ‘saved’. Most people throughout history seem to have thought that we have to either stay in God’s good books or earn our way back into them by doing enough good things for his satisfaction. Otherwise there will eventually be trouble for us meted out by God’s hand. This really is one perfectly good definition of religion. But when ‘Christianity’ first came about in the world it was not known as a religion. In fact it was the non-religion, with no temple, no priests and no sacrifices (standard religious must-haves). But it wasn’t secularism either.
Significantly, the story was told to religious leaders of the day and to generally religious people, in response to their protesting question about why Jesus was genuinely hanging out with prostitutes, tax cheaters and other ‘sinners’. Eating with them showed he totally accepted them. He wasn’t tutting at them. Therefore this story is actually trying to make a point to the religious far more than to the ‘sinners’.
The point is that there are 2 different ways to be alienated from God, and 2 different ways to seek acceptance from God and into the kingdom of God. Both brothers ‘left home’. The younger one did so literally and also by waving good bye to the family’s morality, love and way of life. The older brother didn’t physically leave. In fact he never disobeyed or slandered the family name and did everything he was asked, but the story condemns his moralistic lifestyle in the strongest terms! He left home in a completely different way without having to set foot outside the estate.
When the younger brother left, he was essentially saying that he wanted his father’s things but not his father anymore. The relationship he had with his father had simply been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth. Apparently, the word that has been translated as ‘property’ in the story actually means ‘life’, so the son had asked for his share of the father’s life (livelihood/estate?) and the father had split his ‘life’ in half and given it all away to his 2 sons.
Normally when someone rejects our love and walks away from us, we try to dampen our love and cut ourselves off from the person in an effort to stave off the pain and rejection. But this father deliberately keeps his love alive, which in turn means he has to continue to suffer the pain.
When the younger son eventually returns home, there is no restitution to be made by him. In fact, before the son has said much at all, the father has ordered the best robe to be put on him (the father’s own robe) as well as the signet ring. These are signs that the son has been accepted back as a son, restored to his place in the family without any wait until debts have been paid off. (I have a little diamond ring that I found in my great aunt’s house years after she died. I was allowed to keep it and it now reminds me of the prodigal son’s ring symbolising the worth that is on him as a family member and child). The robe covers all the son’s nakedness, rags and humiliation. Not only does the father shower his love on the son before the son has shown any evidence of a changed life but even before he has shown any abject contrition. Neither of these things merits the father’s favour.
So far so good. But then we come to the older son, who refuses to come in and celebrate when the younger son returns. Why won’t the older brother come in?
Well, he doesn’t think it’s ‘fair’ that his brother gets all this celebration and these expensive things spent on him when he has done so much wrong, whilst he himself has never put a foot wrong. Actually, it really isn’t fair because (don’t forget) the younger brother has spent all his share of the family wealth, but now that he is an heir again he has another claim over what is left. The older son’s share is being squeezed down and down. Plus, the things that have just been lavished on the younger son belonged to the older son as the father had given it all away at the start of the story. It’s exceedingly, totally unfair. Where is the justice?
The trouble is, the older son is looking at the whole situation in terms of ‘what do I get out of this? What’s in it for me?’ instead of in terms of family bonds and love. In other words, he was also only interested in the father’s things and not the father himself, just like the younger son. But it was much less obvious. Both sons believed it would be the wealth, not the love, of the father that would make them happy and fulfilled. While the younger son got what he wanted by ‘a bold power play, a flagrant defiance of community standards, a declaration of complete independence’ (Tim Keller), the elder tried to get what he wanted by working hard and doing everything he was told. It was not out of love for his dad but out of the hope that he would receive his reward. It’s back to motive again. Under these terms, fairness and justice become very important. ‘If I work hard, I deserve x, y and z’. These days, x, y and z usually stands for heaven, but could also be health, wealth, happiness and the good life. Sometimes, bizarrely, people who take this view realise that they may fall from the expected standards, but in that case they will be judged and rewarded based on how intense their sorrow and regret is. Even their failures have to measure up. (By the way, I’m mumbling this part because I know it extra-applies to me). So both sons are in their own way alienated from their father and his love. This is how they both left home. It’s a dysfunctional family and the father always wanted a functional family.
It seems the older son is throwing away his father’s love and family not because of his badness (like the younger) but because of his goodness. He is proud of what he has done and thinks he is therefore owed by right.