Retribution or Restoration?
Today’s first reading and the gospel speak of two kinds of justice: retributive justice and restorative justice. The gospel offers a very different picture of John from last week. Today he is a prisoner with a question, “Are you the one, or are we to wait for another?” If John did have doubts, it was because of the peaceful way that Jesus behaved, not at all like the violent revolutionary the Jews expected as their Messiah. John preached retributive justice – if people do something wrong, we punish them. That satisfies our need for what we think is justice. It just punishes the person, gets him out of sight. It doesn’t change the person. It restrains them. That’s how most people understand justice. Most people’s notion of purgatory and hell is based on retribution.
The first reading speaks about another kind of justice: restorative justice. This is the way God does justice. Isaiah’s prophecy tells us that God doesn’t come with punishment but in fact He is going to love us, restore us, heal us and transform us by loving us unconditionally. God “punishes” us by loving us more! It is only love that transforms the human heart. Restorative justice is to restore people to who they really are at their best, to change their mind and their heart. This happens when people experience love. Retribution might be a starting point. This was John’s teaching. But Jesus leads us much farther than that. Those who understand that transformation takes place through restoration, those people are ‘greater’ than John the Baptist. Punishment is the best that the unenlightened mind can do. It doesn’t really waken the heart or change the soul.
The third week of Advent is called ‘Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday’ reminding us of the celebration of Christmas soon to come. The readings and text of today’s Mass are full of joy. When we reflect on God’s restorative justice we deepen our awareness that God does not love us because we are good; God loves us because God is good. And then we can be good because we draw upon such an Infinite Source. Rejoice!
Adapted : M. Marsh, José Antonio Pagola, R. Rohr Homilies and Meditations