God is Unfair

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God is unfair. That is what I learned in church today (see, I am blaming it on my priest - he said it, so it must be okay, right?). In Luke 15:11-32, the prodigal son is welcomed home by an equally prodigal father.1 The Prodigal SonThe older brother complains, as would most of us, that the extravagant mercy of the father is wasted on the wastrel son, and it is simply not fair. The older brother wants clear consequences for his younger brother's misbehavior. The father is more interested in celebrating his son's return home, extending mercy where there should be punishment. So, God (the father in this story) is not fair.

Fr. Paul, I think rightly, interpreted this as the triumph of mercy over justice. It got me thinking though (hard enough that I had to ask for a pencil from a fellow choir member in order to remember my thought while trying to sing responses in Greek). John Rawls, the famous political philosopher, argues for what he calls "justice as fairness." In what he calls the "original position," participants develop rules for society while sitting behind a "veil of ignorance" regarding their social, economic, racial or sexual status. His theory is that given complete ignorance about your place in society, you will do your best to construct civil laws which will benefit everyone as best as possible, in other words, you will seek to be fair. In this, fairness is read as a sort of minimum baseline by which all people should benefit. But it is clearly a minimum, the best you can do. In the story however, this isn't really what Fr. Paul meant (I presume) about justice, this sort "minimally fair" definition.

A far more common definition of justice, at least as we hear it bandied about in our civil discourse, is justice as retribution, as punishment. The older brother wants the younger brother to be punished for his disrespectful (for he truly is terribly disrespectful to his family) behavior. We want criminals to be punished for their crimes. The truth about our penal system is that it makes no attempt to restore the criminal, it is simply about punishment and removing the "threat." This is certainly our rhetoric about terrorists, they should be punished and removed. All attempts to find out why they utilize the disturbingly effective tool of terrorism are seen as a waste of resources.

Yet in the parable, the father is just as prodigal as the son, precisely because he wastes his resources, twice! First he gives his property to his young heir, well before his son would legitimately inherit it (i.e., the father is not dead yet!), and then, when the ungrateful little wretch returns, he spends even more money (out of the older brother's share!) to celebrate! Mercy in this case is a wasteful extravagance which restores the younger son in the good graces of his family. This is not mercy contrasted with justice, but mercy as restorative justice, which is really the only justice worthy of the name. Mercy is justice as shalom, as peace, restoring relationships to either what they were. Or, since as Orthodox we really don't believe that the garden was perfection, but was the beginning of perfection, it is a restoration of relationships to what they are called to be in the Incarnation. Restorative justice is not about minimal fairness or right retribution, but the establishment of a world in which we are freely able to bear the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, hope, peace, and mercy. In a world where we fail, mercy is granted in order to restore us to healthy, life-giving relationships. Perhaps it is mercy that elevates justice from retribution or fairness to shalom. It is certain though, mercy is not at all fair.

  • 1. prodigal |ˈprädigəl|
    adjective
    1 spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant : prodigal habits die hard.
    2 having or giving something on a lavish scale : the dessert was crunchy with brown sugar and prodigal with whipped cream. See also Profuse.