The Common Good
September/October 2005

Restorative Justice

by Robert Roth | September/October 2005

Jesus sums up faithfulness as being other-oriented. It's about God. It's about the neighbor.

From the iron curtain in Germany separating East and West,

From Jesus to Paul, the Christian community expanded from agrarian areas on the edges of Rome's reach to cities key to the empire. When reading Matthew, keep in mind that Herod Antipas ruled Galilee as a Roman protectorate. Locally, the Pharisees exercised dominant power in the synagogues, markets, and courts. This region's fertile lands provide the context for Jesus' vineyard parables, but remember that its many large villages lived under an occupation. Jesus contrasts that rule with the coming kingdom of God.

The good news is that reconciling "two or more gathered," forgiving 77 times, and inviting "both good and bad" to the wedding feast leads to a justice that restores relationships, shares the bounty, and redeems lives.

In Galilee, Jesus demonstrates a restorative justice that penetrates surface spirituality. He announces that there are tax collectors and prostitutes who will enter the kingdom of God ahead of respected religious and national leaders.

Perhaps these Galilean parables aren't so different from the large-scale dramas in this month's Exodus history and psalmist liturgy. Recovering the balance of power and the dignity of each person gives life and saving wholeness. What changes in Galilee is that God acts, through the person of Jesus, through a transformative justice that knows no end to forgiveness.

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

September 4
Practicing Reconciliation
Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Today's growing interest in mediation underscores the practical wisdom in Jesus' patient step-by-step approach to reconciliation and Paul's pedagogy on the golden rule. Within the faith community, Jesus shows a very human process of self-governance that attempts to avoid embarrassing people and searches for the gentlest way possible to rebuke the offender and reunite the parties. He also contrasts this approach with the spiritual grandstanders who would use their demonstrable "gifts" for authoritarian control of others. Jesus reminds them, and us, that when "two or more are gathered," he will be there. That's authority enough.

Paul broadens this seeking of justice to all neighbors, trusting that loving "your neighbor as yourself" remains viable. Litigation? Incarceration? "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law" (Romans 13:10).

Utterly impractical? The festival of Passover in Exodus 12 (with its musical soundtrack in Psalm 149) gives a perpetual reminder of God's presence and functional power in the most wretched times and impossible situations. Remembering God delivering the people from servitude in Egypt, the festival offers a vision of worshiping as one and relating as a restored people "throughout your generations..." (Romans 13:14). Paul explores this seeking for justice, saying retribution has become obsolete and dysfunctional (and certainly not of God) from the local to the international.

In many states prison populations have tripled or quadrupled in the last 25 years. It is time to try a new way, the way of reconciliation—which, honestly, is a very old way.

September 11
Forgiveness of Debts
Exodus 14:19-31; Exodus 15:1-11; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

The 1970 big-screen romantic drama Love Story made famous the slogan "love means never having to say you're sorry." Soon after came John Lennon's infamous rejoinder: "Love means having to say you're sorry every five minutes." The fab singer-songwriter was closer to the gospel truth.

Seeking and receiving forgiveness is a necessarily repeatable interaction within the human family. Breaches occur. Brokenness happens. Continuously, things must be set aright.

Reconciliation takes many forms. By grace or goading, God resolves injustices. In the gruesome accounts of Exodus 14 and 15, Egyptians die that Israelites might live. Yet considered from the perspective of enslaved laborers fleeing to freedom, God is praised as the only one who could restore their dignity and hope: "Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?" (Exodus 15:11).

As the Creator is ultimately in control, Paul calls God's people to respect one another and leave the judging to God (Romans 14). Love, says Paul, means forgiving others for what would have been seen as radically different lifestyle choices—whether to eat meat, drink wine, or observe the Sabbath—knowing that they are accountable only to God.

"On the ground" in Galilee, Jesus responds to Peter's question about forgiveness with what many would find extremely difficult in year 1 or year 2005: forgiving financial debts (Matthew 18:22). What kind of a Lord expects that kind of forgiveness?

Jesus segues from his response that Christians must forgive 77 times (or "70 times seven") with a parable of a king forgiving the debt of a slave (Matthew 18:23-35). This incredible debt was to the tune of 10,000 talents. That is 50 years of Herod Antipas' income, or 150,000 years of a laborer's wages. Now that's forgiveness, the kind that Jesus then says God will show to us—if we show it to others.

Forgiving insurmountable debt is as contemporary as the morning's newspaper. Many African nations have paid the principal on loans to the World Bank or International Monetary Fund many times over, but now spend one-quarter of their national budgets on debt service and interest. Forgive us our debts?

September 18
Show Me the Manna!
Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

What's just? What's fair? What's equitable? Will I feel God has been fair with me in my life only if you—who obviously have not worked as hard!—get less than I do? If God sends bread from heaven (with a side of quail, please), but rains it down equally on the slackers, is that legitimate? In that Exodus 16 situation, would I start a new round of complaints against Moses and Aaron, or anticipate the future psalm and sing "Glory in his holy name" (Psalm 105:3)?

Psalm 105 glories in the quail, food from heaven, and water from a rock that the Israelites received on the road to freedom. Similar to what Paul describes in Philippians, the journey is toward integrity before God and unity with each other. Right relationship equals righteousness. This is the heart and soul of biblical justice.

The imprisoned Paul of Philippians looks beyond his life-or-death situation because he sees himself belonging to God's providence, not the domination from afar in Romans or nearby from the temple. Whatever his destiny, he is at peace. He remains a child of God, a worker in the in-breaking age to come.

In Matthew, the storytelling Jesus says, "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner" who hires "laborers for his vineyard" (Matthew 20:1). Typical of a Galilean village, even the landowner with a steward heads to the market to do his own hiring. The landowner promises "whatever is right" as laborers begin work in the early morning, at 9 a.m., noon, 3 p.m., and 5 p.m., only to all receive the same wage at day's end. Just? Fair? Equitable? Right, I ask? The answer is yes. No matter when they were asked to come to the vineyard to work, every person deserves a living wage, as do those working for minimum wage today. In the kingdom of God, no one goes to bed hungry. It's only fair.

September 25
Undesirables Desired
Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

Imagine the 1 billion people who live in the world's richest nations turning to the 5 billion people in the developing nations and hearing Paul's invitation to the Philippians: "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others" (Philippians 2:4). How truly difficult this is for those of us in the "1 Billion Club" to, in humility, regard others as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Even once in a while. We just figure some have made it and others are losing the struggle. Some are in, others are out.

When the Israelites are out—out on the exodus journey and complaining again—Moses brings water from a rock. (Repeating the pattern of earlier weeks, this Exodus 17 account is echoed in Psalm 78). The rejected are accepted. The dry ones replenished.

In the Matthew passage, Jesus—again using the local Galilean image of grape pickers in the vineyard—increases the stakes in the perennial game of who is in and who is out. Even as Moses brings God's miraculous water forth "before the elders," Jesus is encountering questions of authority and humility from the chief priests and elders of another time. Using parabolic teaching again, Jesus personifies the religious leaders as a son who says he'll work in his father's vineyard but is a no-show. The father's other son balks at first but then gets to work. That working son is like the tax collectors and prostitutes who ultimately follow the "way of righteousness" and "are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you," Jesus says (Matthew 21:31-32).

Shallow religiosity was an effective means of social control in Jesus' Galilean villages and it still is in our global village today. Wherever we find ourselves among the 6 billion, these readings offer the humble way of aligning ourselves with the glorious deeds of God's movement of restorative justice. Single file behind the prostitutes.

Boundaries and Crossings

From the iron curtain in Germany separating East and West, to the redlining in real estate dividing black and white, to the wall in the Middle East disengaging Palestinians and Israelis, human-made boundaries often alienate and destroy. But God provides boundaries that give life and bind people in love—from the Ten Commandments to the "greatest" and "second" commandments, and the dividing line between "the things that are the emperor's" and "the things that are God's."

Similarly, there are glaring contrasts between the lines violated by human temptation and the many invitations God gives to cross over to a better life. We tend to cross the line by creating golden calves of self-worship or exalting mortals as "princes" and "caesars." Yet the Holy One bids us a different crossing over—over the Jordan, over to peace and purity, and over to graciously giving and receiving unconditional love.

Again this month, we follow Moses' lead in Exodus, hear the musical echoes each week in the psalms, and consider Jesus' parables along his travels through fertile Galilee.

As the psalmist sings "Happy are those who observe justice" (Psalm 106), we will be tested, and the Philippians and 1 Thessalonians readings take us to Macedonia, key to the Roman Empire. We will be ushered toward a peace that passes understanding and a love that employs heart, soul, and mind. It is a love that secures boundaries against our baser instincts, a love that crosses over to every neighbor.

October 2
A Healing Balm Co-opted
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20; Psalm 19; Philippians 3:4-14; Matthew 21:33-46

The Ten Commandments are a healing medicine for a sin-sick soul or a sin-sick society. The Decalogue remains a fine prescription for societal health—even preventative care in divine-human, familial, and neighborly relations. It's also at the heart of the law Psalm 19 celebrates as a curative gift of God, reviving the soul, making the heart rejoice, and enlightening the eyes (Psalm 19:7-8).

Why would Paul prefer "not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ" (Philippians 3:9)? Formerly a Pharisee, Paul confesses what he did as one of those learned elite, using intellectual prowess to co-opt holy law to coerce and repress.

Initially well-intentioned synagogue teachers and village leaders who believed the law of Moses was the balm of national life, many Pharisees idolized the law and became blind to why Christ had come, opposing him and laying traps for him. In another vineyard parable, Jesus informs them that "the kingdom of God will be taken away" from them (Matthew 21:43).

Like God's law, modern medicine heals wounds, prevents disease, and aids vital health. But as the purview of the few, a gift meant for all can become a symbol of inequality and injustice. Like the Pharisees co-opting the law for the few, "concierge doctors" offer same-day appointments, house calls, and premium care for an annual added fee of $5,000 to $10,000. All this while medical resources for the poor become scarcer and 45 million Americans have no health insurance.

October 9
Golden Parties
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14

"It appears that Ms. (Paris) Hilton's blond ambition knows no bounds," says a May 2 article in The New York Times. "She commands anywhere from $150,000 to $200,000 to appear at a party for 20 minutes. ‘If it's in Japan I get more,' she said."

Why would the Israelites' worship of the golden calf in Exodus 32 seem bizarre to us? We get daily updates on the latest golden supermodel or partygoer. The worship of the self has a "rich" tradition. Moses interceded to get God to reconsider allowing disaster to befall an unfaithful people (Exodus 32:11-14). Who will speak for us?

"They made a calf at Horeb," remembers the psalmist, "and worshiped a cast image" (Psalm 106:19). This kind of idolatry abuses the poor who struggle for basic needs. But, the psalmist reminds us, there is another way: "Happy are those who observe justice."

At God's banquet, the key word is everyone. Paul says, "Let your gentleness be known to everyone" (Philippians 4:5). In the gospel reading, Jesus says, "Go therefore into the main streets and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet" (Matthew 22:9).

In that party called "the kingdom of heaven," many are called—the mentally challenged and the Oxford scholars, the unemployed and the Paris Hiltons. "Many are called, but few are chosen," Jesus says (Matthew 22:14). The nice part: We invite everyone and leave the choosing to God.

October 16
A Sacred Line
Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

If your faith convictions bump up against national policy or authority, where do you draw the line? Would your faith ever compel you to do something that your government would consider "crossing the line?"

This week's passages consider church and state, or, in the case of Exodus 33 and Psalm 99, faith community and national identity. Moses trusted that his nation had God's unique presence in its exodus: "In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people..." (Exodus 33:16).

Maybe your country is Canada, the United States, or Germany, but you sing with Psalm 99 that "the Lord is king.... Mighty King, lover of justice..." (Psalm 99:1,4) and look beyond nationalism to a transcendent ruler of the whole creation.

Paul's letters to the Philippians and Thessalonians these five weeks speak to churches in Macedonian cities key to the Roman Empire. Imprisoned while writing Philippians, Paul speaks to the persecution in Thessalonians where, despite their troubles, the people have "received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit" (1 Thessalonians 1:6). These Gentile believers crossed the line.

Jesus, too, considers the fine line between respecting authority and offering a national allegiance that makes one a functional atheist. Jesus creates a teachable moment out of the Pharisees' trap. He draws a sacred line between "the things that are the emperor's" and "the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21). Where is that line for you?

October 23
Bound to Love
Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46

Trusting God and loving others. Sacrificing ego—even life—that others might live. The pattern keeps repeating, only coming to completion in the one who is fully human and fully God.

Moses (like Aaron) died on the threshold of the promised land, seeing the land and knowing his people would make it. After 30 days of tears, the people finished the journey.

Paul speaks for the martyred when he says that because "we deeply care for you," he wants to share not only the gospel "but also our own selves" (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

Jesus pegs all the law and the prophets on loving God "with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind," and "your neighbor as yourself" (Matthew 22:37, 39). He sums up faithfulness as being other-oriented. It's about God. It's about the neighbor.

Is self-giving love for the other intuitively familiar? Oddly foreign? Consider these neighbors: $2 million homes are commonplace in Moore County, North Carolina, where the U.S. Open golf tournament brought more than $24 million to the state this summer. Intermingled with predominately white, wealthy towns, Moore County is also home to the black communities of Jackson Hamlet, Midway, and Waynor Road, which lack police service, sewers, and, in some places, piped water.

Sewer lines run right past these unincorporated African-American areas, where they watch garbage trucks whiz by. County and town officials each say it is the other's problem. Really the problem is spiritual. The good news: One day, faith will triumph over ego. In fully loving God, we will truly love our neighbors.

October 30
Crossing Jordan
Joshua 3:7-17; Psalm 107:1-7, 33-37; 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13; Matthew 23:1-12

When wisdom and worship are disconnected from real life, spiritual pretending soon gives way to glaring hypocrisy. On the other hand, when the received faith tradition and living liturgies are woven into the fabric of life and history, worship gains profound integrity and social realities are transformed.

In the gospel reading, Jesus calls the Pharisees to accountability (again!) because the teachings and the temple entrusted to them are critically important, but they do not practice what they preach (Matthew 23:3). They must be replaced; too much is at stake.

In Joshua, the tribes of Israel pass into Palestine over a dry Jordan River—God miraculously holds back the waters—in a glorious act of living liturgy. The priests carry the ark of the covenant, Joshua hears God's call and takes Moses' place, and the people follow the ark, their leader, and their divine instructions.

The deepest tradition brings the greatest change. So it is that Psalm 107 is both a thanksgiving for faithful pilgrims and a hymn of social justice. The Thessalonians cross over to vibrant possibilities because the "word of God" is "at work in you believers" (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

We, too, can cross over into a new social reality of freedom and justice if we will practice ancient truth in postmodern times. A sign of hope? The finance ministers of the G8 (the top wealthy nations) agreed in June to forgive some of the poorest countries' billions of dollars of debt. It will mean better health care, cleaner water, and new hopes for education. It just might signal the beginning that one day becomes a crossing over into Canaan.

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