Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Life isn’t fair. We say it as adults; we learn it as children. Many years ago, there was a popular children’s book entitled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Alexander awakens in the morning and says: “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.”
After a bad day at school and an even worse time with the dentist, Alexander continues his book of lamentations:
“Lima beans for dinner and I hate limas. There was kissing on TV and I hate kissing. My bath was too hot. I got soap in my eyes…I bit my tongue. The cat wants to sleep with Anthony, not with me. It has been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I think I’ll move to Australia.”
Sound familiar? At some point in our lives, eventually I think we all discover that life isn’t fair. COVID-19 has certainly reinforced this. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if what’s fair and what’s not fair was only on the scale of an innocent child’s experiences?
These days, the issues of fairness and justice have been very consequential and debated – in our politics, the media, on our nation’s streets. The calls for “justice” and “peace with justice” are common phrases, slogans on signs and in headlines around the world.
When I was growing up in the 60s, “peace signs” were all the rage, largely in response to the Vietnam War. I like to think that today our nation is coming to a better understanding that it’s not enough just to talk “peace.” Peace with justice is crucial, because peace without justice is just another form of injustice. The Old Testament prophets cried out for justice all the time. And we need to also if we’re to be faithful. We believe that our God is a just God. And we believe our God is a loving God.
But I wonder…Is OUR sense of justice the same as God’s sense of justice? How much of our human sense of justice is more like “Don’t get mad, get even”? Aristotle essentially defined justice as “giving people what they deserve.” Is justice a human determination? Does our sense of justice reflect the true nature of the Gospel? I think we all have a sense of justice, and feel that fairness is a worthy human goal. But how does GOD look at things?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa was a court-like restorative justice body assembled in 1995 after the end of apartheid. One of the stories that came out of it was of man who had come to a woman’s home, shot her son at point-blank range, and then burned the young man’s body on fire while he and his officers partied nearby. The woman’s husband was killed by the same men, and his body also was burned.
When the man confessed his crimes 18 years later, a horrified court sat in silence as one of the judges asked the woman, “What would you like to see done to this man who has committed this crime?”
The woman, who was both a grieving mother and a grieving widow, said softly, “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial…I want, secondly, for him to become my son. I would like for him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have…And finally, I would like him to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take him in my arms, embrace him, and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
Justice. What a word. But what if God’s goal for us and our world is greater than achieving justice, as noble a goal as that is?
What if God’s goal is simply to love?
Jesus told a story of a farmer who hired workers to harvest the grapes in his vineyard, with some working far more hours than others. But at the end, he paid all the workers the same wage. Was that just? Was that fair?
Jesus told another story about a boy who said to his father, “Give me my inheritance,” and even though he was the younger brother, the father gave it to him. The son left, and then promptly lost every cent of it. And then when he came home, his father threw a party. The older brother protested, “I never gave you any trouble. All these years I have served you and yet you never gave a party for me!” Was that just? Was that fair?
When Jesus was hung in agony on the cross, he turned toward one of the criminals who hung beside him, and said to him, after the thief admitted the injustice of Jesus’ crucifixion, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Was that just? Was that fair?
Justice wasn’t done on that Good Friday. Something greater than justice was done when Jesus, like that South African widow, placed himself into the hands of forgiveness and love.
Humanity’s image of justice is a blindfolded woman, holding a set of scales in one hand and a sword of justice in the other — impartial, detached, fair, and possibly punishing. Humanity’s image of justice is when the bad get punished and the good are set free; when people get what they deserve.
But that’s not our Christian image of justice. We don’t have an image of justice because, by the grace of God, we are blessed to receive something even better than justice.
God doesn’t give us what we deserve; God gives us love that we don’t deserve. We’re related to God, saved, forgiven, not because of who we are but because of who God is.
I think that God wants us to relate to each other the same way God relates to us. We’re not supposed to cast judgment, to repay evil with evil. We respond to evil with God. We respond to hate with love. Because that’s how God responds to us.
Yes, we want justice to abound. Yes, peace with justice matters – incredibly! But through the grace of God the world needs more from us than simple justice. The only way through the divisions in our world is by the grace of God. The world needs love.
So let us do as Paul instructs:
Let love be genuine…love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…Rejoice in hope…extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you…Live in harmony with one another…live peaceably with all…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
And let us pray that we shall overcome. Amen.