Prodigal God and Restorative Justice

By Stephen Siemens, MCC Canada Restorative Justice Coordinator

Understanding parable of “The Prodigal Son” (Luke 15:11-32) in the context of its 1st Century Middle East culture makes it one of the finest examples of restorative justice in the Scriptures.

This week is Restorative Justice Week with the theme: Diverse Needs, Unique Responses. In the parable,   we see just how unique God’s paradigmatic love-in-action is for both law-keepers and law-breakers, even though their needs are very different.

In a culture where nothing was more valuable than upholding one’s honour, for a son to ask his father for his inheritance was unthinkable – synonymous with wishing for his father’s death. The father would have disinherited his son, and local villagers would have treated such a son as if he were “dead to his father and dead to us.”

Yet, in the parable, the father divides his property among his sons, turning upside down the legal customs and allowing himself to be dishonoured.

The older son remains quiet at this point. He would have been expected to do everything he could to save relationship between his father and his brother. By doing nothing, he abdicated his role as mediator and reconciler.

When the younger son had finished his wild living and found himself out of money and starving, he decided to return to his father. Imagine that walk home. He would face shame and scorn from the villagers before he could even begin to plead and grovel for his dad to take him back. But to his surprise, his father runs to him.

A scandalous response to wrongdoing! In the first century older men did not run. But here the father takes his robe in hand and exposes his legs, a vicarious exchange of shame that would prove to be transformative. Patriarchy and honour are dashed to pieces in this incredible act!  The younger son was publicly liberated from his own shame by the ignominious actions of his father!

Moreover the father’s whole-hearted public embrace of his son had an important practical value: it preempted a hostile reaction from the villagers. If the father treated the son with love and welcomed him back into the family, the son was clearly not “dead to me” and the villagers would respect the father’s wishes.

Notice that all of this happened without any proof of genuine repentance from the younger son.

But not all were grateful for his return. The older brother comes home from the field and hears from a servant boy that his younger brother had returned in “hygiaino,” – in “shalom.” A relational pronouncement has been made: “Your brother has returned home, and the reconciliation has already begun!”

But the older brother is angry and refuses to join the party, also unthinkable in that culture. His father has to leave the party to plead with him to come inside, to see things from his perspective.

Now the older brother rips into his father publically by slandering his younger brother, declaring that this son of yours — clearly severing ties to brotherhood — “devoured your life” on prostitutes. He is saying to his father and all within earshot, “Look, he is the rebellious son of Deuteronomy 21. He should be killed, not welcomed back! Why are you coddling him? Where is the justice in this?”

The older brother’s public actions were not far from wishing his father was dead, just like the younger son had at the beginning.

But even to these actions the father responds in an incredible way, mirroring the scandalous embrace of the younger son witnessed earlier. Though the need of each son was quite different, the father’s unique response to each was equally unheard-of!

Let’s now remember why Jesus told this story in the first place. The parable opened with the religious leaders grumbling against Jesus because he was welcoming and eating with tax collectors and sinners, declaring the spiritual unity of those gathered at the same table. Perhaps the religious leaders felt a lot like the older brother in the parable: Outraged that honour was spent, wasted even, on this prodigal, on these tax-collectors and sinners!

Let’s also remember that “prodigal” means “generously wasteful,” or “having spent everything.” Although the younger son blew his inheritance, who really spent everything and who truly incurred the greatest cost? Should this parable not instead be called “The Prodigal Father,” as it was he who lavished his costly love on both his sons?

Even though the actions of both sons amounted to severing their relationship with their father, it was the younger one who recognized the harm he had caused. The older one believed that if he only reminded his father about their culturally correct relationship based on keeping all the rules, surely the father would come to his senses and banish the younger. One seemed to more fully embrace the restorative possibilities than the other.

How often do those of us committed to restorative justice ministries still think we are better than others? How many of us still struggle not to judge and exclude those in prison who have committed heinous crimes? We know that God’s costly grace is for meant all people, but it can be so hard to put this theology into practice.

In addition, this parable challenges the retributive attitudes, policies and practices in our churches and parishes.

The Church Council on Justice and Corrections (MCC is an active member) invites churches to embrace restorative justice and to foster an image of God that is synonymous with restoration. The Parable of the Prodigal Father demonstrates that this can only be achieved when we begin to fathom the full extent of God’s compassion and forgiveness toward ALL God’s sons and daughters.

If we are promoting restorative justice, then our lives must be equally and irresistibly compelling to those with whom we are in dialogue, whether we are sitting next to them in the pew or visiting them in prison.

Adapted and abridged from the author’s feature article in Sage, CCJC’s quarterly publication.

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