God’s Justice

Mary Esther Stewart            


Pope Paul VI has been quoted extensively as saying “If you want peace, work for justice.”  I believe this, yet his admonition confused me.  We define justice as getting what is coming to us, getting what we deserve.  If one runs a traffic light and must go to traffic court, one is generally fined.  The law was broken and the guilty party must pay.  Justice was accomplished.  If one commits murder and goes to trial, one generally is punished by incarceration.  We consider this an act of justice.  A person pays for his/her crime.  Retribution has been made.  We understand justice as a matter of retribution.  And on the positive side, one works 40 hours a week and receives a paycheck for the work.  Again, this is justice.  The pay check can be considered just retribution for the effort and service of the work performed.  It seems to be a matter of fairness. 


My confusion came when I saw justice as retribution pushed to the point of retaliation:  if you do this to me, I, in turn, can do this to you.  It is only fair that we get treated the same way we treat others.  If one commits murder, one can, in the system of justice, get murdered himself through capital punishment for the crime.  Hence my confusion:  How does retributive and retaliative justice bring about peace?   We read in Psalm 85:11, “Justice and peace shall kiss.”  Sometimes what we perceive as justice is hardly a kiss of peace.  Very confusing!!


And then, to add to the confusion, St. Matthew (20:1-16) gives us Jesus’ parable about the workers in the vineyard.  Many labored all day for a set amount of money.  Then some came along at the last minute, work only about  half an hour, and received the same pay as those who had borne the heat of the day.  Not fair!, we cry.  I don’t want to be treated like that.  What kind of justice is that?  And that is exactly the point I missed.  There is more than one kind of justice.


Retributive justice is the justice we find in our judicial system:  we get what we deserve.  We use retributive justice to maintain fairness and order in our social and political interactions – a very necessary kind of justice.  But in Isaiah 55:9 we read that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts; His ways are not our ways.  And God has His own kind of justice:  distributive justice.


God’s plan for justice is that we each receive what we need, that the goods and services we produce are distributed in such a way to meet the needs of all.  (Yes, the key word is “need!”)  God’s justice is distributive justice.  We are asked to trust, like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, that we will be cared for, that we will receive that which we need.  And in practicing distributive justice, we are asked to provide for the needs of all in our society.  So now the parable of the workers makes sense.  The latecomers received the same pay as the full day workers because the latecomers needed that amount of money.  God expects us to provide for the needs of each other, to distribute goods and services justly.  And so we are faced with the homeless, with the mentally ill, with the unloved and depressed, with the poor, the lonely, the immigrant, the destitute, and the frustrated.  What are the needs of my brothers and sisters?  Not just their material needs but their emotional and spiritual needs?  What are my needs?  (Needs, not wants!!)  As we are faced with these questions, we are faced with distributive justice, the justice in the parable, the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven, God’s justice.


Mother Teresa said it so well, “Live simply so that others may simply live.”  Our brother Bonaventure tells us in his Collations in Hexameron, #34, that “justice makes beautiful that which has been deformed.”  And our Franciscan patrons Francis and Clare demonstrated distributive justice throughout their lives.  Interesting – Francis is known as the patron saint of peace!  In Francis and Clare, justice and peace kissed.  One example of distributive justice in the life of Francis is his encounter with the poor knight on the road.  The knight was disheveled and looking like anything but a knight.  He had no cloak and little pride.  Francis immediately gave the knight his own cloak.  I suggest that the knight’s needs were some sort of reinstatement of his pride and self esteem, some need for recognition of the position that he had held.  Francis was not lacking for clothing.  By giving his cloak to the knight, he acknowledged the position that the poor knight had held, recognized the great deeds that the knight had done, and restored the knight’s self esteem.  Francis gave the knight what he needed.  God’s justice was done and beauty was restored that day on the road in Umbria.


If distributive justice is the key to peace, then the prayer written in the spirit of Francis, “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,” implies that we must be instruments of God’s distributive justice.  I offer a few practical suggestions for being instruments of peace and justice:

-         Assessing my needs as opposed to my wants.  How much do I have (money and material goods) that exceeds my needs?  How do I spend my time in relation to my needs and my wants?  What do I have beyond my needs of time and material goods that can be distributed to others to assist them to meet their needs?

-         Tuning in to the needs of my family members and neighbors.  What are the real needs of those closest to me?  How have I addressed their needs?  How do I distribute my time, resources, and support to my children, my parents, my neighbors, my friends?

-         Becoming aware of how distributive justice is practiced in my local social and political surroundings.  Is distributive justice a reality in my church?  In the political activities of my city?  How does my local government meet the needs of its people?  What can I do to raise local awareness of distributive justice?

-         Evaluating the presence of distributive justice on the world scene.  How does my community reach out to others in need?  How does my country reach out to others in need?  Can I raise awareness of distributive justice with my local and national lawmakers?  (I once asked my national representative what his position was on the World Bank and forgiveness of debt to third-world countries.  At least I made him aware that someone was concerned about the issue.)


Distributive justice means “thinking outside the box.”  It causes us to ask the uncomfortable questions.  It causes the discomfort that Jesus caused in telling the parable of the workers in the vineyard.  But discomfort brings about challenge.  I challenge us to consider the present “war on terror.”  Is this an attempt at retribution that is turning into retaliation?  How can we be an instrument of peace, to make justice and peace kiss, to bring about God’s distributive justice in our world?


God’s ways are not our ways.  Sometimes it is very hard and very uncomfortable to tune in to God’s ways.  Again we can turn to Francis for guidance.   Francis spent much time in prayer, pondering the scriptures, and asking the questions, “Oh, God, who are you?  And who am I?”  Prayer and pondering the scriptures can be our guide for facing the tough issues, for surrendering ourselves to being instruments of God’s peace.  Be careful, we may get what we pray for!!


Lord, make me an instrument of your peace!!


Sell what you have,

Give to the poor,

And come follow Me.

                                                 Mark 10:21



Ms. Stewart lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA.  She teaches Church history, sacramental theology, and Franciscan topics at her local parish, San Francisco de Asis.  She is a widow, a grandmother, an artist and a retired educator.  Ms. Stewart can be reached at estherstewart@npgcable.com or through her website at www.arcoirisstudio.com.