Every man seeks truth and justice. This desire is implanted in the heart of every person. We cannot rest till truth and justice is served. So it is natural that when one feels aggrieved by another party, the person will seek justice. We seek justice when our rights are violated, whether personal, physical or material, or when our dignity is not respected. Recourse to justice is normally made through higher authorities.
However, justice is not just for the plaintiff but justice must also be done for the accused. This means that both sides must be heard. And the proper way, as today’s first reading recommends, is that both the accused and the accuser must meet before the authorities so that they can clarify the truth and decide what should be done. Thus the governor, Festus was an impartial judge. He did not take sides or listen to one side even when “the chief priests and elders of the Jews laid information against him (Paul), demanding his condemnation.” Instead, he was firm with them, saying that “Romans are not in the habit of surrendering any man, until the accused confronts his accusers and is given an opportunity to defend himself against the charge.”
Unfortunately, today, we have many who would lodge complaints against others but are not ready to face the accused. They would write long emails but such emails do not help to resolve the issue speedily as there will be accusations and counter-accusations. Without meeting both parties together, the process will take a very long time and often result in greater misunderstanding and enmity. Worse still, there are many who would write anonymous letters or use fake names to disguise their identity. A judge who just listens to one side of the story would cause greater injustice. That is the reason why Jesus advised His disciples thus, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Mt 18:15-17)
The truth is that many Christians do not take heed of the advice of Jesus. They make wild allegations and spread rumours of what they apparently heard or saw, without proper verification. Instead of clarifying with those whom they are accusing, they choose to continue carrying tales, which itself is a grave act of injustice. If we are so sure of the truth, then like Paul, we would be able to defend ourselves without fear or intimidation before others, even in front of authorities, as Paul did before the Sanhedrin and the officials.
In addition, when authorities feel that the case is beyond their competency, they should delegate to someone else who can deal with it fairly and justly. This was what Festus did. He felt inadequate to deal with the question of resurrection. He said, “When confronted with him, his accusers did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected; but they had some argument or other with him about their own religion and about a dead man called Jesus whom Paul alleged to be alive. Not feeling qualified to deal with questions of this sort, I asked him if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem, to be tried there on this issue. But Paul put in an appeal for his case to be reserved for the judgement of the august emperor, so I ordered him to be remanded until I could send him to Caesar.” At the end of the day, the judge’s or the authorities’ task is to ensure that justice is carried out fairly. We need to refer to higher authorities or experts in areas we feel uncomfortable to deal with.
But justice is not simply a matter of restoring the rights of the complainant. It is also concerned with bringing about restoration of the offender as well. The purpose of justice is restoration, not punishment or revenge, or to inflict more wounds on either party. Justice is to bring about reconciliation among peoples, with God, and to help the offender to find integrity. For this reason, Jesus restored justice not so much by fighting for His rights before man. He died an innocent death. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pt 2:21-24)
This explains why Jesus took the step to restore Peter’s disgrace. The Lord had already forgiven the apostles when He appeared to them after His resurrection. He did not reprimand them for abandoning Him. Instead, He said to them twice, “Peace be with you.” (Jn 20:19-21) But knowing that Peter was still ashamed of his sin and failure, and unable to forgive himself, the Lord took another step to heal his shame. He gave Peter the opportunity to redeem himself by replacing the threefold denial with the threefold affirmation of faith and love. It was a most humbling and touching experience for Peter. For the Lord knew that unless Peter was healed and forgiven, he would not be able to do the same. The Lord had said to Peter earlier, “Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Lk 22:31f)
It was not enough that Peter professed his love for Jesus, but to help Peter to be sincere in his repentance, he had to be sent out to proclaim the mercy and compassion of God. Indeed, we must not reduce Christian compassion to tolerance for evil, and ignore the reality of sin. Whilst exercising compassion for the sinner, true compassion requires real repentance of the sinner, otherwise he or she will repeat the same offence. This explains why in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the priest is bound to give penance to the penitent, not so much as a punishment, but as a means for him or her to rectify his or her life and the particular weaknesses. So too, Jesus gave an opportunity for Peter to show his sincerity in repentance by inviting Peter to feed His lamb and sheep. If Peter were truly grateful to the Lord, he would surely take upon himself the responsibility to help others to grow out of their sins and find redemption and transformation in Christ.
Even in the process of restoration, Jesus was realistic and patient with Peter. The truth is that we do not change radically overnight unless we are given special graces, as Paul was with a special miraculous encounter with the Risen Lord. Our character, personality and values need gradual change. We cannot expect people to change their bad habits and weaknesses instantly. We must be patient with the growth and change in the person. Hence, when Jesus asked Peter the first two times, do you love me with an unselfish, self-sacrificial and unconditional love, that is “agape” in Greek, Peter, no longer impetuous and overly self-confident, replied with a love given to a friend, “phileo” in Greek. It is a love based on affinity, attraction, a brotherly friendship. Peter was still not ready to love without conditions or freely. He loved the Lord the way he loved his family. So the third time, the Lord used the word, “phileo”, when He asked Peter the question, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.”
Indeed, the Lord is not only forgiving in love, but He renders justice by not taking revenge on His enemies and even reaching out to restore His enemies and betrayers to fullness of faith and love. He was patient. He takes us as we are. For Peter, the Lord waited for him. Indeed, at that point of time, Peter could not profess his love for Jesus unconditionally, but later in his life, he did. He followed Jesus completely unto death on the cross.