What is Justice? Between working on the Bishop’s Conference planning group with its theme of Mercy and Justice and preparing a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, where the Gospel was Luke’s telling of the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:1-3, 11b-32), it dawned on me that God’s sense of justice might be a bit different than that of most of us.
When reading Luke’s story of the Prodigal Son, if I hadn’t been working on the Bishop’s Conference I’m not sure I’d have thought too much about the last portion of the Gospel where the elder son doesn’t share in his father’s joy over the return of his brother. I remember a conversation with my dad many years ago about this passage and he thought that the older son had a justifiable gripe. I should mention that my dad was socially liberal, and having lived through the depression was more than willing to help out someone in need. But he wasn’t sympathetic if it was a result of their own bad decisions. At the time I didn’t have a good answer, probably because I hadn’t really given that portion of the gospel much thought. But this time while working on my sermon I decided to dig a bit more into that portion of the Gospel. My study Bible suggested that like the older brother, even today we are suspicious of “notorious sinners” coming back into our lives or churches, concluding that we should be like the angels in heaven and rejoice over their repentance. Matthew Henry’s commentary offers a similar understanding, but noting Jesus was pointing this at the scribes and Pharisees because of their discontent at the repentance and conversion of the publicans and sinners.
While forgiving and rejoicing sounds good, is it fair or just that the father is now lavishing on the younger son from what essentially would be the older son’s inheritance. Without going into a long discussion of inheritance customs, once the younger son took his portion, that meant everything else was the older son’s. This issue of fairness and justice seems similar to that of the story of the laborers in the vineyard in Matthew’s Gospel (20:1-16). The laborers who worked all day seeing those who only worked one hour receive a full day’s wages expected that when it came their turn they would receive more – it would only be fair. But as we learn they got the same pay and then gripe that the owner has made them all equal, regardless of how long they worked. The owner responds something along the lines of, “I paid you what we agreed upon, what’s it to you if I chose to give to the others the same”.
I think for most of us, we have come to believe that fairness or justice means if you work harder whether at school or work or as a volunteer than you should get a better grade, earn more or get more recognition than someone who did less. The phrase “just rewards” seems to fit with our idea of what is fair. In our prodigal son story I’m thinking the older son would agree with the younger son’s initial idea – when returning to his father he would become a hired hand – it would only be fair and just. That was clearly the thinking of the laborers when they thought it would only be fair and just if they got more pay than those who worked less than them.
As a preacher I find it easier to focus on the first part of the prodigal son story, as well as the two parables in Luke that preceded it, the story of the shepherd going after the lost sheep and the lost coin. Those stories ending with Jesus saying something like there being more joy in heaven over the repentance of a sinner than for the ninety-nine just or righteous individuals who need no repentance. I’ve never really thought about the 99, shouldn’t we be rejoicing just as much for those righteous individuals as the repentance of sinners? From this parable it seems like Jesus is a “virtue is its own reward” kind of guy, but that discussion is for another time.
I remember liking a Hoyt Axton song from years ago called “Rusty Old Halo”, the first verse and refrain go:
I know a man as rich as a king
Still he just won’t give his neighbors a thing
His day will come, I’ll make a bet
He’ll get to heaven and here’s what he’ll get
A rusty old halo skinny white cloud second hand wings full of patches
A rust old halo skinny white cloud robe that’s so wooly [and] it scratches.
I’m thinking for most of us this speaks to our understanding of fairness and justice. But if we do then we fall into the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Are we any different when we live our lives weighing our good works against others, believing how much better we are than others who don’t live up to our standard? If we do then we forget about grace and that our likelihood of being among the just or righteous that need no repentance is probably pretty slim, well at least I know that is the case for me. I sort of see notorious sinner and righteous to be the ends of a continuum. I keep trying to live out my Baptismal vows so I may stay closer to the righteous end of that continuum, but even on a good day know I’ve got a ways to go. Especially if I’m thinking there are rusty old halo’s waiting for the folks I come into contact with, but know mine will be all shiny and new.
What I believe Jesus was trying to tell those listening and us some 2000 years later in these stories is a bit about God’s grace and justice. In heaven there is no First, Business and Economy class — no rusty old halo’s. It is good that God doesn’t use our notion of justice and fairness, for none of us deserves eternal life on our own merits. I think we hear the words of James (James 2:17) “even so faith, if it has no works, is dead…”, but lose sight of what Paul tells us of “works” and “faith” and that we are justified by faith, “… not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph 2:9).
The older brother and the laborers understood justice in terms of works; we are to understand justice in terms of faith. Faith in the words of Jesus found in Luke 12:32: “Do not be afraid little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.”