A u c k l a n d A o t e a r o a N e w Z e a l a n d
a n g l i c a n c h u r c h
The Justice of God
July 10, 2005
Ordinary Sunday 15 Gen 25:19-34 Matt 13:1-9,18-23
God walked into heaven one day and was surprised to find that everyone was there. Not a single soul was sizzling in hell. This disturbed God, for was not God the righteous judge? And what was hell created for anyway, if no one was going to be cooked? So God said to the Angel Gabriel, "Gab, summon everyone before my throne and read out the Big Ten." Everyone was duly summoned. Gabriel read the first of the Commandments. Then God said, "All those who have broken this commandment will betake themselves to hell immediately." A number of persons detached themselves from the crowd and shuffled off to hell.
A similar thing was done after the second Commandment was read…and the third… and the fourth… and the fifth… By now the population of heaven had decreased considerably. After the sixth Commandment everyone had gone to hell except one old man who was muttering to himself in the corner. God looked up and said, "Gab, is this the only person left in heaven?"
"Yes," said Gabriel.
"Well," said God. "It's rather lonesome here, isn't it? Tell them all to come back!"
When the man who was muttering heard that everyone was welcome back he was indignant. He yelled at God, "This is unjust! Why didn't you tell me this before?"  The story begs the questions, 'What is justice?' and 'How does God judge?'
When I first told this story nearly two decades ago, I got a fiery response. A leading evangelical minister took umbrage at the suggestion that God did not differentiate between those worthy of heavenly rewards and those who were not. I think the point of the parable is, as Isaiah said a few millennia back, God's ways are not our ways. God has an understanding of justice that is different from ours. God sees the bigger truths of life and living.
Two little Biblical parables come to mind. Matthew 25 - the Sheep and Goats - God judges people not on their piety, or productivity, or pleasantness, but on how they care for the most vulnerable ['the least of these my brethren and sisteren']. Matthew 13 - the Wheat and Tares growing up together - our job is not to judge between those who we consider wheat and those we consider weeds, but to leave all judging to God, and learn to live together.
These parables were not told in order for us to build a judicial system upon them. Rather they were told in order to make us think, to make us uncomfortable, and to remind us that ultimately God is the definer of justice. Justice is a word best not left to parliamentarians. Justice in the hands of a politician quickly becomes what the majority wants, or more accurately, what will get him or her re-elected. Occasionally a politician will hold out against the majority on a matter of principle. But then he or she won't be in Government for long.
Take the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. The mood of the majority of New Zealanders, believing Maori were asking for too much and that access to beaches was under threat, swung behind Mr Brash. The Government, anxious to get the polls on side, jumped in to muddy the waters and assure the non-Maori majority. What's 'right', 'fair', or 'just' were secondary considerations to political expediency. Minority rights were swept aside by the incoming tide of majority assumptions.
I can see something similar happening with the so-labelled anti-smacking bill. Allegedly 71% of the polled adult population want the right to hit kids. Kids don't get polled. They don't get to vote either. Is it a human right of any person of any age not to be physically assaulted because they get something wrong? Right and wrong though quickly evaporate when a cane and riding whip is used. In the Timaru case the wielder of the whip got off. Jury democracy said she was using 'reasonable force', as stated in section 59 of the Crimes Act. What wrong justifies a person three times the size of the child using this so-called reasonable enforcer? Was the kid cheeky? Did she smile at the wrong time? Did the milk get spilt, the chores not done, or the homework not finished?
At the end of the day in our justice system, despite the goodwill and integrity of many in the legal profession, might makes right. What the majority wants translates into legislation. The rights and views of minorities are dependent upon the magnanimity of the majority. While I may bemoan aspects of our legislative and legal system, I am also sceptical of those who view the Bible as a rulebook on the subject of justice.
This morning's story of Jacob and Esau is a case in point. They were twin brothers. Only one however, Esau, came out of the womb first. Culture dictated that only that one would receive the irrevocable blessing from the family patriarch. So we read about trickery and deceit. Jacob, the younger, cooked up a stew. He was scheming as he stirred. Esau, returning home from hunting, was famished. Esau, ruled by his stomach as some young men are, agreed to sell his birthright to his brother in return for a bowl of broth. Later Jacob, aided, encouraged, and abetted by his mother Rebekah [who of course was also Esau's mother!!], tricked the patriarch Isaac, into giving him the blessing.
Why did God tolerate it? Why didn't God speak up for what was right, fair and just? God is absent in this story. God is absent in many stories. Jacob reaped the consequences of his actions. Sure, the familial line of inheritance would run through his blood and offspring. Yet equally surely Jacob condemned himself to a life of looking backward over his shoulder. He lived in fear of his brother. Instead of sibling harmony and cooperation there was loathing, fear, and flight. Was it really worth it Jacob?
I read another little parable last week about two brothers. Both were called by God to serve society's most vulnerable. The first brother did so, boots and all. The second brother didn't. He led a more normal life - job, kids, etc. When the brothers died they appeared before God. The first brother was thanked for his thousand talents worth of service and given a billion billion talents worth of reward. The second brother was thanked for his ten talents worth of service and was also given a billion billion talents worth of reward. On hearing of the same reward the first brother was pleased and said "God, knowing this as I do, if I were to be born and live my life again, I would still do exactly what I did for you."
Again some might accuse God of being unjust. I think though it's a case of asking ourselves, 'What is the bigger truth?' Is the bigger truth that one brother lived a more generous godly life than his sibling and therefore should receive a greater reward? Or is the bigger truth that they were brothers and both are held equally in the embrace and love of God. When considering justice we need to remember bigger truths. Like God's love can't be earned - it is just given freely. Like judging other people is fraught. Like caring for the most vulnerable and upholding minority rights is important. Like bad deeds have a way of repeating on the perpetuator. And like the fathomless compassion, generosity, and grace of God.
1. Adapted from De Mello, A. The Song Of The Bird, p.153