Judges and juries have a significant amount of power in our judicial system. Some of them, swayed by extenuating circumstances in the defendants’ lives or the circumstances in which he or she committed the crime, render judgments that are relatively mild. Other judges and juries are not so influenced and are perfectly content to render the harshest sentences possible under the law. Interestingly, when people complain about our criminal justice system, they generally criticize the judges and juries who are “lenient”. The harsh ones are almost never criticized because, we like to tell ourselves, these people are upholding law and order by removing criminals who contribute nothing to society, but only take from the society. They’re not productive, so why should we care about them?
“Let’s just tear out this fig tree,” says the land owner. “It robs the soil of nutrients and makes it impossible for the grapes to grow. It uses up more than its share of water, and its oily bark irritates the skin. The only reason for its existence is to produce fruit, and it’s not doing that. Just cut it down and throw it away. We’ll plant something else.”
It seems like a logical argument to me, especially since I’m a gardener. I don’t know much about fig trees except what I have read in Bible commentaries and theological books, but I, too, have uprooted plants that were not performing, so I understand the farmer’s desire to get rid of that fig tree.
Frankly, there are days when I’m sick and tired of the violence and harm we humans do to each other, and I can identify with the harshest possible punishment mentality. There are days when I am completely onboard with the great flood story, when God decided to save only one human family and the animals of the earth in an ark, while destroying the rest of us. Pull it up, chop it down, and start over with something else. Unfortunately for God, and for the rest of us, the children of Noah, those who had been saved from the flood by the hand of God, went right back to the violence and sins of their predecessors. So nothing really changed.
It appears that God learned something from that experience. God had tried the harsh punishment route, God wiped out nearly the whole population of the planet in that flood, with no good results. Maybe that’s a suggestion to us that harsh punishments don’t work.
If you’ve ever been hurt by someone who later apologized, you know what I am talking about. We may have carried angry thoughts and feelings for a long time against this person who hurt us, but suddenly here they are standing in front of us, asking that we forgive them. In that moment of total humility and honesty, we find our anger and hurt dissolve into a bond of healing forgiveness. The future of the relationship may be uncertain, but in that moment, we recognize our common bond of shared humanness. The reverse is also true: when we ourselves have had to humble ourselves and apologize from the heart, acknowledging our wrongdoing to someone else. Their acceptance of our apology, their expression of continuing confidence in us—despite our behavior—helps motivate us to keep us walking on the straight and narrow. We don’t want to disappoint them again.
I don’t know whether it’s possible for this kind of relationship to happen in the context of the criminal justice system. I do know of pilot projects across North America where perpetrators, in lieu of prison time, meet with their victims and together they devise a sentence that seems fair, which is then presented to the judge. For example, someone who steals someone’s car, one that the person had worked for years to be able to purchase, agrees to a similar number of hours of community service to come to an appreciation of what that car was worth to that working mom. It has been suggested that the repeat offender rates for those involved in this program is less than 50% of what it is for those who were processed through the traditional justice system. So perhaps there is some way of including relationship-building in the mix of restitutionary justice. I’m not certain about this.
What I do know for sure is that Our God is very interested in relationship-building, and not punishing. God isn’t interested in cutting us down and throwing us away, even when that’s what we think we deserve. With God, there are an infinite number of “second chances”. Sure, things sometimes have to change before we can produce fruit, and none of us likes that, but we are called to heal and grow no matter what life brings us.
It falls to us to call on God who is always available to us, who is nearer to us than our own breath, as the Quran says. God has an amazing offer of grace and forgiveness and new relationship that is presented to us right now, in the midst of our Lenten journey. Every time we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we promise to turn our lives around and return to God’s way. There would be no purpose in believing this if we didn’t also believe that God is always there for us, waiting to welcome us home.
To our legalistic way of thinking, this might seem too easy, too lenient. Maybe God is too lax. We can’t quite believe that God could be good and just and yet still be so merciful, so understanding, so forgiving. For God forgiveness comes easily because God is so passionately in love with each and every one of us. Once we come to accept this truth, we will try that much harder than ever to believe in God as much as God believes in us. And if God believes in us that much, if God wants only to surround us with his abundance and love, then part of our journey includes accepting the fact that we are loveable just the way we are. We don’t need to do anything to earn that love, it will always be there.