Matthew 1: 18-25 Rev. Dr. Galen E. Russell III
Romans 1: 1-7 December 18, 2016
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...”
Prayer: O Come, O Come, Lord Jesus. Come, please, into our hearts once again, transforming us within so we may be champions of your peace and justice. Amen.
This Advent season we’ve been exploring what it might mean to say “O Come, O Come” to Christ Jesus to come again into our hearts and lives. First we explored what it means to simply say to God, “O Come, O Come.” Next we said, “O Come, O Come” to the gift of the kingdom of heaven which Christ ushers in. Last Sunday, our focus was on saying “O Come, O Come, O Christ—bring us your peace.” Now today, in a similar way, we’re saying, “O Come, O Come, O Christ, share with us your sense of justice.”
Our sense of justice primarily is wrapped up in retribution, or retributive justice. It involves punitive measures or penalties of some kind. When someone is convicted of a crime and a sentence is pronounced, the victims often say, “Justice was done.” When Dylan Roof was convicted of 33 counts of murder this past week, I heard that attorneys are going to ask for the death penalty—many believe that justice will be served adequately if that is his sentence. The day of retribution is at hand, we often hear.
But would it surprise you to know that in the Bible, retributive justice is not the primary way of understanding justice? Probably no surprise here, huh? Because, as we’ve seen time and time again, God’s ways are often not our ways. Retributive justice is found in scripture, don’t get me wrong… but it is restorative justice that is featured far and away more often.
Restorative justice happens when difficult living conditions or unjust circumstances are addressed and effort is made to restore those conditions toward the good. When something is oppressive, or inequitable, or systemically geared to favor the powerful and the privileged, the biblical sense of restorative justice calls for action leading to better conditions, or restoration, if at all possible.
So, I would guess, in the strictest sense of the word, God becoming our Emmanuel in Jesus is the best example of restorative justice—the condition of our inherent sinfulness is addressed by Jesus. Matthew tells us that his name itself translates that he will save us from our sins. He will move us toward a restoration of relationship with God, which is our salvation, and nothing will be able to get in the way of that restored relationship. That’s restorative justice in the fullest sense.
In our modern era, the difference between retributive justice and restorative justice can be found in the old, but true story of the late Fiorello LaGuardia, who served as the Mayor of New York City in the 30’s during the Great Depression. The story is long, but the short version of it is that His Honor, Mayor LaGuardia showed up at night court one evening, dismissed the judge, and took over the bench. Within a few minutes, a tattered old woman was brought before him, charged with stealing a loaf of bread. She told LaGuardia that her daughter’s husband had deserted her, her daughter was sick, and her two grandchildren were starving. But the shopkeeper, from whom the bread was stolen, refused to drop the charges.
He turned to the woman and said “I’ve got to punish you. The law makes no exceptions—ten dollars or ten days in jail.” That’s retributive justice. But even as he pronounced her sentence, the mayor was already reaching into his pocket, and he pulled out a $10 bill. “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit; and furthermore I am going to fine everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread so that her grandchildren can eat. Mr. Bailiff, collect the fines and give them to the defendant.” The following day the New York City newspapers reported that $47.50 was turned over to a bewildered old lady who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren (Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel, Multnomah, 1990, pp. 91-2, https://bible.org/illustration/mayor-laguardia, retrieved December 16, 2016). That’s restorative justice and retributive justice at the same time, it appears.
In our day, we must live with both, but as Christians, I think we’re “set apart” like Paul, to be apostles of God’s good news found in Christ which automatically makes us lean toward the restorative side of the spectrum. I think this is true because believing in God affects our
personal lives. We can find a personal relationship with God, a lifetime of inner joy, forgiveness of sin, and we are free from anything that keeps us from getting God into our hearts.
So, with our personal lives affected, I notice that we can’t help but be transformed from within. A desire to live a life of obedience to Christ and his teachings can take hold. We naturally want to mimic his practice of reaching out to those in need, those who are struggling under oppressive situations. We seek to protect, and tend to, and minister to those most vulnerable in our society, especially those on the margins. We want to share the good news of Christ, not by word only, but by actions of restorative justice as well. That is why we engage in outreach ministries.
Or, put another way, restorative justice I think occurs at the intersection of our faith in God and our ethical conscience and moral center. When those two intersect, I think restorative justice is the result and happens quickly.
Which takes me back to God becoming our Emmanuel in Jesus as the best example of restorative justice. It’s important to know that God has provided the means to for us know this restorative justice. It’s our salvation, our new life in Christ. It’s the saving grace of God starting in the humble roots of the Christ-child. The saving grace of God is offered completely, for each of us. It is finished. It’s a done deal. Our difficult condition of living without God in our hearts is restored back toward living with God. As soon as we say “yes” to God as our Emmanuel, instantly we become aware that the restorative justice was done long ago. And, we know this is our new reality to live in now. And this is the reality that we can share with one another through action of mission and ministry.
In the remaining days of Advent, let us say, “O Come, O Come, O Christ! Come and help us experience your restorative justice in our lives just as you promised long ago,” so we can share it with others in their lives to experience now.
Hark! The Herald Angel Sing—Glory to the newborn King! The one who come, born to us so that we and others may know God’s saving grace.
Let us stand and sing.