Chances are good that any problems you have with this series surround the issue of justice. Today, I’m going to offer a new way to understand justice and I will prove to you that this idea absolutely permeates the scripture. It’s THAT big.
So how did we miss it?
As a student in the Living School, Richard Rohr gave a talk to our cohort about the Justice of God. He used two or three verses from the scripture that taught that God’s justice is not based in retribution, but restoration. At dinner that evening I mentioned to Richard that I too had seen this in my studies and I asked if he would be interested in additional scriptures to support this idea. He graciously accepted and I returned to him, as I am giving to you, a list of nearly 132 verses where you can read for yourself that God’s goal is not about getting even, but about making us whole.
I’m realize that I’m overdoing it on the scripture because for most of us God’s justice is too big of a pill to swallow.
The only justice most of us have is retribution. Retribution is the idea that God has to even the score with us. Retributive justice is the lens through which nearly everyone we know has understood the bible, it’s the basis of Religion’s power plays and fear tactics. It’s understandable, given the countless texts that seem to teach it. The alternative form of justice (restorative) always shows up if we keep reading.
Retribution means God will do something severe to “those people” who are not as good as us, or who don’t believe like us, or who aren’t as smart, clever or lucky as us. When we go through life and see horrible suffering, sometimes the only comfort we get is from the balm that a payback is coming for those son’s of bitches. It’s the thought which says; “God is on my side, so screw them.” We felt this the day the twin towers fell. Like Esau, I comforted myself with the death of my brother (Genesis 27:42)
Jesus told a story about the Justice of Heaven and it destroyed the expectations of his audience. It’s still a scandal today and it’s likely you’ve never heard this.
The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) eradicates retributive justice. The story tells of a manager of field who hires workers at the beginning of the day and each worker agrees to work for a denarius (a days wage). Every couple of hours the manager goes out to the city and finds more people to come and join the work, offering each a day’s wage. He does this up to the very last hour of work. When it’s time for payment, those hired last are given a full-days wage and so it goes on down the line to those who bore the work in the heat of the day. Of course those hired first are pissed. “It’s unfair” they say. And that is precisely how I know Jesus is talking about justice. We latch on to retribution when we perceive life as unfair.
The response of the manager is not what was expected. He scolds those hired first for trying to begrudge the manager for his generosity. This is our clue to Heaven and why some people will not accept heaven on these terms. For them, an “unfair” Heaven is not Heaven.
The manager (God) is not dividing us up into good, better and best. The goal is to make all whole (thus the symbolism of the denarius). Religion and State are the two biggest systems of meritocracy and they nailed Jesus to the cross. Heaven is not like them.
The justice of heaven is not based on merit. It’s based in love. Restoration is justice because it makes all things whole, complete and justified. Restoration presupposes that all of us fall short. Whether the gap is small or large it’s still a gap. So at the right time God makes us whole for no other reason than he/she loves us and wants to. The athlete who never drops a ball has more glory than the one who only catches perfect throws.
Restorative justice has no gradation, all are equally dependent on grace, but there is a catch. Restoration can not be celebrated if any hate, prejudice or pride exist in our soul. If we can’t get beyond “unfair”, we cannot enter Heaven. I think this is why the gates of heaven are always open and the river of life flows out of the city to heal the disappointed (Revelations 22:2).
Jesus concludes with the famous words: “ The first will be last and the last will be first.” It’s paradoxical that those who think they are closest to Heaven are actually farthest from it, while hose who can’t even describe themselves as insiders are so much closer because they understand that it wasn’t them that put them there. Prostitutes and sinners will enter before the religious (Matthew 21:31).
Again I’m back to the humble and the proud, and both are shocked at Ultimate Reality, The delighted and the disappointed are not what we expected. It’s far better than that. When we lay down our “right” to complain, we create the space for restoration and gain the eyes to see the Kingdom of Heaven.