The Divine Justice of the Loving Father
What is justice? We often think of justice in terms of fairness - we get what we deserve. The most recently canonized saint of our Church, St. Paisios the Athonite, has a beautiful understanding of what he calls “divine justice.” And “divine justice” is quite different from human justice.
“Suppose, two men are sitting at a table to eat. In front of them, there is a plate with ten peaches. If one of them greedily eats seven peaches, leaving three for his friend, what would you think? Most people would surely think that this man wasn’t just or fair. In fact, they would say he was quite greedy and selfish.” St. Paisios called this an injustice.
“Well, what if the man says, ‘Since we are two men and there are ten peaches, let us split them half and half. Each one of us is entitled to eat five peaches.’ If he eats five and leaves the other five for his friend, then we would say this man was fair. This is human justice.
Now, what if the first man understands that his friend likes peaches very much. So he pretends that he himself is not very fond of them, and eats only one, saying to his friend, ‘Please eat the rest of the peaches, as I don’t really like them. Besides, my stomach aches and I shouldn’t eat any more.’ The action of this first man reflects what we call “divine justice.” The man prefers to be unfair to himself by human standards for the sake of the other man.”
“Divine justice,” according to St. Paisios, is a different concept from which we depart from human justice. He goes on to share another example of divine justice. “If someone tells me: “Father, you must leave your cell because it belongs to me. Go down in the garden and stay by the cypress tree there. Let me have your cell.” If I have divine justice, I will gladly accept the man’s request, thank him for his offer, and be satisfied. Of course, human justice would allow me to disagree with the fellow, argue with him, and even fight to protect my cell. But that’s not divine justice.”
As Nikolai Bergyaev describes it, “There exist two types of people – those who crucify and those who are crucified, those who oppress and those who are oppressed, those who hate and [those who love], those who inflict suffering and those who endure suffering, those who persecute and those who endure persecution. No explanation is needed to emphasize whose side Christians should be on.”
“The true Christian,” St. Paisios highlights, “must never condemn or press charges against his fellow human, even if the man tries to take something by force. This is how people who believe in Christ abide by the law of divine justice.
Our Lord was the first to apply divine justice. Neither did He find excuses for Himself when He was being accused, nor protested when people spat on Him, or threatened when He was suffering. He patiently and silently endured everything, without reacting in the least. He even let them tear His clothes off; thus God was ridiculed for standing naked in the presence of His own creations. The most important thing was that He did not seek help from human justice, but, instead, He justified His persecutors and prayed to His Father to forgive them. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Lk 23:34).
So, divine justice and charity are an expression of God’s sympathy towards humanity, whereas human justice seeks out fair judgment. Human justice exists to bar the evildoings of malicious people. The person who has trust in divine justice is neither upset when treated unfairly, nor seeks his justice; on the contrary, he accepts the false accusations as if they were true, and does not try to convince others that he has been slandered; instead he asks to be forgiven.
In today’s Gospel Story of the Loving Father and the Prodigal Son, we see such divine justice in the loving Father. The younger son rejects his father, runs away from his heavenly home, wastes his life in extravagant, reckless, and self-indulged living only to end up in the depths of hell, eating the food of pigs and identifying with the swine of the world. He deserves at the very least to suffer the consequences of his poor choices. The boy acted not only foolishly, but evilly. In many ways the boy was a self-centered scoundrel.
And yet, upon his return the Fathers offers only divine justice. Where human justice would see a reckless, self-centered son in need of punishment, the Father sees only a broken child filled with unending potential, a lost son who can still discover a new life. Divine justice means that the father holds no grudge, no anger, no rebuke, and no desire for retribution or human justice. Instead, he runs out to his son, lovingly embraces him, showers him with kindness and compassion, and sees only a broken man in need of healing. The father blesses his lost son with full restoration back to his original beauty.
Divine justice implies unfathomable, unconditional, divine love. That is the love that dominates the heart of God. A love whose only desire is for broken humanity to find healing and wholeness and renewal in Him. Although Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son as a fictional story, Holy Scriptures offers numerous examples of real-life prodigals who encounter the divine justice of God.
A woman has five husbands, and lives in shame and disgrace in her village, but after encountering Christ’s divine justice, her life changes and she goes from a sinful Samaritan woman to St. Fotini.
A thief and murderer faces death by crucifixion from the Romans, yet in his last moments of life comes face to face with the divine justice of Jesus. He opens his heart to receive this divine love and becomes the first to enter paradise.
And of course there’s the religious fanatic, the one who despises the followers of Jesus so much that he does all he can to persecute and eliminate them, even approving of the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Yet in a totally unexpected and never-imagined moment, Saul runs into the divine justice that only Jesus offers, and allows that love to turn him from a murderer of Christians to the greatest defender and proclaimer of Jesus Christ. This prodigal Saul becomes the Apostle Paul.
Divine Justice. It has changed countless lives throughout history. For those who are open to receive it, it transforms and renews each and every person. May each of us understand that divine justice, accept it in our own lives, and practice it with everyone we meet.
Facing Our Uncertain Future
What Is Reality?
Our Orthodox Faith
Liturgy: The Meaning and Celebration of the Eucharist