032722 Lent 4 Balancing Righteousness and Compassion
The sermon begins at minute 18:05 of the video
2 Cor. 5:16-21; Luke 15:11-32
I recently visited a person who left his church 20 years ago in anger about how he had been treated. He is dying and longs to receive communion, but couldn’t get himself physically to church even if he was spiritually ready. I asked him what he thought he had gained and lost by leaving church. He said he had tried to gain righteousness by distancing himself from the hypocrisy of the people in church. He said he’d lost community and sacraments. I asked him if he had achieved righteousness. He said, no. We ended up agreeing that his was a false righteousness.
Like many of you, last week I watched parts of the examination of Judge Jackson by the Senate Judicial Committee. I heard question after question about why she was soft on crime. If you saw Lindsey Graham’s diatribe on child pornography, you witnessed his declaration that “throwing their ass in jail” is the most effective sentence. Appeals to reasonableness, fairness, or congressional guidelines, was called letting “such scum get away with it.”
Many of us may have had moments of feeling such rage at behaviors that disturb our sensitivities and hurt other people. Fortunately, Judge Jackson and most other judges don’t make judicial decisions based on such knee-jerk reactions. And most of us can delay our reactions until we access in ourselves a more fair and reasonable response. Judge Jackson shared that, for her, the purpose of punishment, and the criteria for its severity, is to heal and restore the community broken by crime. The question she asks herself as a judge is, what sentence will lead to the best experience of human community? That doesn’t always create the best sound bites; but one hopes it is a common desire among judges.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is introduced by the words, All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” The Pharisees and scribes couldn’t find a place for compassion in the world they had constructed around a certain form of righteousness. They were offended that Jesus could claim to be righteous and allow such scum to eat with him.
Many of us have faced moments of needing to parent adult children like the father in the Prodigal Son story. We’ve often led with our hearts in those moments. When this father saw his errant son in the distance, he was filled with love and compassion, and ran to hug him. He wasn’t thinking about righteousness or consequences. But when we read the story as a response to the offense the Pharisee’s took at Jesus’ radical hospitality, we must consider the whole family and larger community. There were rules about how to treat a shameless son who wasted the inheritance from his father. The father and both sons knew those rules and expected them to be applied. But when the father started running he was just responding to the sight of his son in the distance.
By the time he was hugging his son, it may have dawned on him that he was risking everything. But since he had already done it, he wondered if perhaps he could turn it to good. Maybe his scandalously compassionate behavior could change generations of tradition in his village. So he threw a banquet for his son – the opposite of what tradition required. What the boy did was so reprehensible in that culture that they even had a ceremony to punish him. They would fill an earthenware jug with burned nuts and corn, break it in front of the prodigal scum, and shout his name, pronouncing him cut off from his people, turning him into an orphan. But if the father could get them to come to his party, maybe they would forgive both father and son. The villagers did come, and the wine was softening them up. His plan seemed to be working. Maybe they would forgive this father.
But there was at least one person who wasn’t ready to forgive the father: the elder son. No one had asked him how he felt about spending what was left of his inheritance to take care of three people instead of two, or being known as the prodigal’s brother, or wearing the second best robe, since the best one was already taken. The elder son is the good son, who did everything right. He isn’t about to sit down at the same table with the self-centered, pig-loving, sin-sick brother who’s caused his family so much grief. Forgiveness was harder for him than for the villagers. The father didn’t necessarily convince him. But he showed his son that each person must bear the cost of forgiveness.
You cannot have peace and stay exactly who you are, or even who you want to be. You may have to see yourself in your worthless younger sibling or arrogant older one. Sometimes you have to sacrifice things like fields that have been in the family forever, and honor, greatness, rightness and self-respect.
So, whether it’s the person who left church, Judge Jackson, Lindsey Graham, the Pharisees and scribes, or you and me – we all struggle to balance righteousness and compassion. How can I both protect my adult children from facing terrible consequences, and teach them responsibility? How can we hold a standard of righteous behavior from church members, at the same time we forgive their arrogance, hypocrisy, and rudeness? How can we be team players at work, while refusing to turn a blind eye to misconduct?
Judge Jackson seems to share the prodigal father’s hope that we can find that balance, and that things can change. She has met offenders who feel like the system keeps knocking them down. She believes that, when offenders are caught off-guard by being treated like human beings, it can be the first step in a necessary transformation. If, when they are released to the community after serving their sentences, they feel like they have been treated fairly, they may be less likely to become repeat offenders. That would reveal a proper balance between righteousness and compassion.
But, as we saw in the questions she got from some Senators, the community must also be transformed if offenders are going to receive fair treatment and be welcomed back into the community. That may not happen as easily as throwing a banquet in an ancient middle east village; but it can and must happen. The approach to criminal justice that Judge Jackson described is called, restorative justice. And it has a methodology, which sounds similar to the one Judge Jackson kept referring to in her responses. Practitioners of restorative justice name three core elements of their methodology: encounter, repair, and transformation.
The encounter in Judge Jackson’s cases were appearances by the offender in front of her as judge. She showed offenders a way to repair the harm they had done to people and the relationships and communities they had torn apart. She made sure that offenders took responsibility for their wrong, and acknowledged the victim’s need for healing, and the need to make amends by atoning for wrongdoing and working to regain good standing in the community. And she spoke of the necessity and possibility of transforming
both victims and offenders, pinpointing root causes of crime, including systemic and structural issues, to foster more just systems and safer communities.
Jesus practiced restorative justice without calling it that. He undercut the basis for all violent, exclusionary, and punitive behavior. He became the forgiving victim so we would stop creating victims. He justified people by loving them and forgiving them at ever-deeper levels. Paul also believed in the possibility of a new creation, [where]everything old has passed away; everything has become new! It requires a different way of looking at people. Often we look at people as if they can’t change. Once a criminal, always a criminal. Once a sex offender, always a sex offender. Once a hypocrite, always a hypocrite. Paul calls this a human point of view. To look at people as capable of transformation is to see that there is a new creation. The way we see people can lead to transformation – of individuals and of societies.
Jesus and Paul offer a healthy balance of righteousness and compassion. Both grounded their life in the Spirit of God in a unitive worldview that saw no conflict between righteousness and compassion. In fact, we can’t have one without the other. May this season of Lent help us get that deeply grounded.