“…it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” [Matt 18:6]*
The human spirit simultaneously loves and hates justice.
I often speak to groups of teenagers and some of their strongest objections to the gospel relate to justice.
If God is good, then how come He permits evil?
If God is good, then why won’t He end the suffering?
If God is good, then how can He consign people to hell?
There is an answer to each of these concerns. The answer is justice. And we love it, and we hate it.
Yesterday was a day on which we loved justice. As the Prime Minister spoke in Parliament, offering the government’s apology to victims of child sexual abuse, He condemned past injustices and spoke of attempts by the government and others to remedy them.
“Why weren’t the children of our nation loved, nurtured, protected? Why was their trust betrayed? Why did those who knew cover it up? Why were the cries of children and parents ignored? Why was our system of justice blind to injustice?
“Today we confront our failure to listen, and believe, and provide justice.”
And yet, this:
“Nothing we can do now will right the wrongs inflicted on our nation’s children.”
At this very moment in which we love justice and crave for it under the crushing weight of injustice… It eludes us.
It reminds me of the scriptural metaphor of justice being “far away.” To actually do justice in this circumstance is ultimately impossible. It’s beyond us. Even as our chests tighten, fists clench, or tears flow at the ruination of lives, it seems so… unfixable… We grasp for solutions and come up short.
We can apologise, yes. But is that justice? We can join redress schemes, yes. But is that justice? We can, as the Prime Minister said, “love… hear… honour…”. But is that justice?
Everything seems like a platitude. And it must seem especially so for victims.
The Prime Minister told several stories yesterday, and one stood out to me. It was that of ‘Aidan’ who spoke of being “cheated of justice” because his abuser had died. He lamented the fact that he would never have a day in court.
But even then… is the catharsis of retribution – a jail-term, public shaming, whatever the system can mete out upon a living person… Would that be enough to really, finally solve the problem of injustice?
The sad thing about Aidan’s story is that he does not recognise this fact: justice has been done vis-à-vis his abuser precisely because his abuser has died.
That person has met the judge of all the earth.
Far better for them – far better – that they drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone around their neck – than meet the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-consuming judge who warned so sternly of stumbling a child, and also said, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” [Rom 12:21].
Far better for them, Jesus goes on to say, to enter life a cripple, or limbless, or blind, than to perpetuate these crimes with those limbs and be “thrown into the hell of fire” [Matt 18:9]].
Justice is real!
On days like yesterday, we realise how we crave it. It resonates with the human spirit as something so desirable but so elusive. Who, in such circumstances, can do justice? Who has that power, that authority, that ability, or that wisdom? Is it the institutions? The abusers? The Prime Minister?
There is only one answer: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” [Gen 18:25]
And yet, as my teenage antagonists demonstrate, we hate justice.
We are those who are condemned in Malachi 2 for crying out, “Where is the God of justice?” – I am sure many were saying that yesterday – and simultaneously declaring, “All those who do evil are good in the sight of God.” [Mal 2:17]
We are numb to questions of righteousness, morality, truth and evil. We are especially numb to it in ourselves. We do little to address it in our world, in our families, in our churches, but above all else, in our own life.
The modern church could well be more numb to sin, less concerned about sin, and less vocal about sin than at any time since Christ.
On Saturday night I watched as the Wentworth by-election count came in, reflecting on all that it symbolises. I watched as Queensland’s Deputy Premier posted pictures of Brisbane’s bridges lit up in purple to “celebrate” the passing of sickening abortion laws.
I was angry. I was sick. I was grieved.
Perhaps I was saying, in my own way, “Where is the God of justice?”
But as a wise preacher once said, if you plan to call the garbage collector, you might want to get out of the wheelie bin.
In such moments, I want justice for “them…” But how different it is when it comes to this matter of justice for me.
If justice is to be done – and it will be – it will fall on all.
That is the part of justice that we hate, and we tend to ignore.
For too long I believe we have been numb to the gravity of evil. Our children rebel but we are too scared to correct them. Netflix becomes a sewer yet we are too addicted to cancel the subscription. Our thought lives would shame us if published, still we don’t fix it because nobody can see. The siren song of sentimental responses to what we once called sin in ourselves and our friends seduces us daily.
Words like “love” “compassion” “grace”, almost totally vacated of meaning (other than sentimentality), act as cloaks to justify our numbness to sin. We embody the attitude of, “Let us sin that grace may abound.” [Rom 6:1]
How often do we simply say, in our own subtle way, “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord"?
We do it every time we just don’t take sin seriously.
But we always – always – cry out for justice when the sickest and darkest aspects of evil come to the surface. Meanwhile we do far too little about cleaning up the sin that is in and around us.
That the seriousness of these matters so often fails to sink into our hearts may well go a little way to explaining why the churches have just as much guilt in the historic child abuse scandal as anyone.
May God forgive us.
And, if He does, it will be only on the basis of the greatest injustice in all of history: that Jesus suffered under the wrath of the judge of all the earth instead of you or I.
Justice is real. And that’s both profoundly serious, and wonderful.
It should make us live differently.
*Explanatory note: The quoted verse has two applications. The first relates to the child Jesus had placed in the middle of the group (that is the application I am concerned with in this article), and the second relates to the metaphor Jesus intends to create through the example of the child.