God's Justice and Ours

Saint James Fordham • Proper 20a • Tobias Haller BSG
Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more, but they received the same daily wage.+

According the unwritten laws that govern the entertainment industry, and the time-tested response of audiences, every action-adventure movie ends with the villain getting his just punishment. And the more villainous the villain, the more terrible his end, and the louder the audience cheers. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Think of the James Bond movies: whether it’s the evil Doctor No slowly sinking into the boiling bath of his atomic reactor, or the sinister Auric Goldfinger being sucked out through the shattered window of his private jet, the movie villain dies a terrible death, and the audience cheers.

Come on, admit it! That’s part of the fun of a really exciting action-adventure film: seeing the terribly wicked punished, and the courageous righteous rewarded. The only time an audience will put up with a villain getting away at the end is when they know for sure that a sequel is in the works. Most of the time what a movie audience looks for is that satisfying release that comes when the villain meets his demise, in proportion to the extent of his villainy. That’s what justice is all about.

The prophet Jonah represents just such an audience. God appoints him to warn the wicked city of Nineveh that it is going to be destroyed. And after his reluctant false start, and intermission in the belly of a great fish, Jonah finally delivers the message of doom, God’s promise to destroy the wickedest city on earth. Jonah is ready to see God’s justice prevail.

But when the people of the city repent, and God decides to be merciful, Jonah gets completely bent out of shape. He can’t believe it! He goes up the hill outside town and arranges himself a mezzanine seat, waiting to see what will happen. Perhaps there is one more reel to this film and God is just building up the suspense! God can’t be serious, Jonah thinks. Nineveh is the most awful, wicked, villainous city in the world. What difference that they’ve repented? This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work out! The bad guys are supposed to get smashed.

And when it turns out that the movie is over, Jonah is practically on the point of asking for a refund, when God teaches him a lesson about mercy, stunning him to silence when he finally sees God’s mercy for an entire city in comparison with his own shallow sorrow for a shrub. God also reveals to him the selfishness that often lies at the heart of such rushes to judgment. After all, the shrub was sheltering him — he didn’t give a damn about the hundreds of innocents who would perish in the downfall of Nineveh.

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Justice is a funny thing. We want justice for ourselves when we think we’ve been wronged, when we haven’t gotten our fair share. And we want justice that punishes the wicked. We want the “tit-for-tat,” the quid pro quo, actions followed by consequences. In short, we want the books to balance out at the end of the day.

But as God showed Jonah, and as Jesus showed his hearers in the parable of the Generous Employer, that isn’t the kind of justice God dishes out. In spite of our wanting to see all the accounts of good and bad tallied up and dished out accordingly, that just isn’t the way God works. God is simply not a bookkeeper.

Neither is God’s justice like human justice. You know how justice is portrayed in a court-house: Blindfolded, in one hand she holds a sword and in the other a balance-scale. These symbolize three aspects of earthly justice: impartial, decisive, and punitive. But God’s justice is different. God’s justice is not based on blindness, but on the opposite: complete knowledge. God’s justice is not based on weighing the pros and cons, but always tips the scale towards the disadvantaged, the oppressed, the disenfranchised.

God is like the generous merchant who sees a poor woman hunting for coins in her purse, and ignores what the scale says, giving her an extra portion. God is not like that other character who appears in December, Santa Claus, who keeps a list of who’s good and bad, and rewards them accordingly. God knows who is naughty and nice, but he doesn’t come to us as a fat man in a red suit with switches and coal for the wicked, but comes to us all in love and forgiveness with his own Body and Blood.

And though God does have a sword in hand, it is a sword raised only to cut down those who will not receive God’s mercy, who refuse to see themselves as needing mercy, who stand unrepentant in their own self-righteousness. God’s justice is always, and I mean always, combined with God’s mercy.

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And it’s a good thing it is. If God’s justice were not tempered with mercy, then who in this imperfect world could stand? God does not dole out rewards and punishments solely in relation to what we have done or failed to do. He does not simply give us what we deserve. As Jack Benny once said when he was presented with an award, “You know, I really don’t deserve this. But then again, I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that either!” No, God does not simply give us what we deserve. God is not a blind dispenser of justice, but a generous and merciful Father who loves us, even when we fail to do what is right. For while we clamor for justice, all of us, even the best of us, stands in need of mercy.

Mercy may not always seem fair; but it is good. Mercy may not always make sense to us; but it does to God. And perhaps that is why, at our best, mercy touches us so much. Even when it doesn’t make sense, perhaps especially then, mercy suddenly appears where it seems most unlikely, and we get a glimpse, as Jesus said, of the kingdom of God.

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Just such a glimpse happened in the midst of World War II, in the depths of some of the heaviest fighting, as the allies were edging into German-occupied territory. American infantryman Bert Frizen was a scout, a dangerous job, out on the front edge of the advance.

In the stillness of an early morning, his patrol came to the edge of a field, unaware of a German battery hidden behind a hedge at the other side. Bert edged out of the woods into that field, and as he reached the half-way point, the Germans opened fire, ripping into Bert’s legs. The American troops withdrew to the woods, leaving Bert out in the field, struggling helplessly in a small stream, as the shots careened overhead. Dizzy with pain, he looked up the stream-bed, and saw a German soldier crawling through the mud towards him. Helpless, Bert closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable pistol shot or stab of a bayonet.

After what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. He opened his eyes, and the German soldier was kneeling at his side. Bert then noticed that the shooting had stopped. To his amazement, the German stood, and bending low, hoisted Bert over his back, and carried him back over the muddy field to his fellow-Americans behind the trees at the field’s edge. Then without a word, the German turned and walked calmly back across the field to his own troop.

I wish I could say this story ended there. But it didn’t. There was one more reel to this film. The battle recommenced, and men died on both sides. But for a moment, perhaps only for five minutes, something of the kingdom of God came to be on that sodden field.

What happened didn’t make sense. All the rules of war, the balance sheet marked in blood, the righteous ire of the allies and the fierce nationalism of the Germans, all that passes for human justice and common sense was eclipsed by an act of mercy, an act of mercy that silenced the guns, on both sides, if only for a moment.

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So it is that God silences the pious indignation of Jonah. So it is that God forgives and shows mercy to the sinners of Nineveh, as well as to the innocents who don’t know their right hand from their left. So it is that God pours out his generosity to those who worked only a fraction of the day. So it is that God confronts those who think they’re special and deserve extra, when all they’ve done is what they agreed to do. So it is that God, instead of treating us with blind justice, shows us the mercy that not only sees through us but sees us through. So it is that God, instead of giving us our just deserts, in mercy gives us what he knows is best for us. And so it is, dear sisters and brothers, as our final reel plays out, that we ought to be merciful to one another, in the Name of him who shows such mercy to each of us.+

The story of Bert Frizen is from an account by Chuck Holsinger reported by Lynn McAdam.