In a court scene not long ago, a Fredericksburg man stood before the judge having been convicted 72 times in 30 out of his 47 years of life.
On this occasion, he was there for “finding a man’s wallet and using his credit card to buy $7 worth of items” from a convenience store. The defense attorney pled for “mercy,” of course. But in convincing the judge to issue a sentence that exceeded the state’s recommended maximum, the lawyer for the commonwealth’s attorney was more compelling.
“Sometimes the commonwealth just has to throw up its hands,” the prosecutor was quoted in the April 4 article of the Free Lance-Star. “The courts have tried for 30 years to change [his] ways, but to no avail.”
The commonwealth prevailed, and the man will spend the next four years in prison with another eight years suspended.
Justice was done, perhaps. The man got what he “deserved.” But a biblical lens on justice offers a different perspective.
It is no secret that God had no problem “judging the sinner” from the very start. Think punishment of women for all time for eating the forbidden fruit, flooding a corrupt world in the interest of starting anew and turning people into pillars of salt for not trusting the Lord’s rescue attempt.
But we should never confuse God’s attempts to rehabilitate mankind with how he calls those he has created to carry out justice here on earth.
While societal justice speaks to fairness and equality, biblical justice is a far cry from making sure everyone gets the same treatment regardless of circumstances or that the things people need are equally distributed based on an “abstract” notion of fairness. God’s justice is forgiving. It is done with kindness and humility. And it does not exist separately from the idea of righteousness, more so in how we strive to be Christ-like than the ways we issue judgment on those whose lives are not outwardly connected to the holy spirit.
It is good in our world that people get what they earn, are rewarded for hard work and blessed for their good deeds. But that has nothing to do with how we relate to God and his people. That question is defined in what we decide to do with people who have not earned our favor, who have not worked hard and may have even made poor choices. The decisions we make in those instances are the true test of justice and our interest in God’s kingdom.
There is this little thing called grace—the free unmerited favor of God. It is a divine promise that is not just available to those who have done everything right. On the contrary, it is the very thing that should inspire those of us who have a relationship with Christ to treat others with unconditional love and forgiveness.
Consider the contrast of justice in the Broadway musical “Les Miserables.” You have an inspector going to extraordinary lengths to find and imprison a convict who skipped out on his parole. And you have a priest who encounters that same convict, shows compassion and falls victim to his thievery when he runs off with the church silverware. The only justice that the inspector can see is returning the convict to the same prison, where he has already spent 19 years. The priest, however, spares the man from the clutches of the law by telling the police that the stolen silverware was a gift and the man forgot to take the candlesticks, as well. So moved by the priest’s act of grace that the convict goes on to redefine himself as a better man.
Justice in God’s eyes does not charge us with the responsibility of fixing people. We are not the judge. We are not the jury. We are simply tasked with love.
When we throw up our hands in the face of any of our brothers and sisters in Christ we deny God’s love for ourselves in all of our own imperfections.
God’s justice is about reaching out to people in their darkest hour and giving them what they need, not necessarily what they deserve. Many times it is help, not conviction, that resolves a need and allows someone to find enough value in themselves to change their ways.
None of us can achieve life’s many hurdles alone, and banishing someone without a support system to further solitude only furthers the wedge between their hearts and God’s blessings.
A Word on the Street column is now appearing in the Religion section of the Free-Lance Star every other week. This one appeared June 7, 2014