Yesterday's First Reading told the tale of the reluctant prophet Jonah's preaching to the people of Nineveh. Because of their wickedness, God was going to destroy the city and all of its inhabitants. Jonah walked through the streets of the ancient metropolis, preaching his doom and gloom, death and destruction, to all the people. As the story goes, the people were duly distressed and began their repentance and penance. Even the king shed his royal robes and donned sackcloth, sitting in ashes rather than upon his throne. He even decreed that all citizens were to do penance, so that, perhaps, God would relent in His plan to punish.
Now, the Book of Jonah is a great read (it's short - so maybe you should just pick it up now - go ahead, I'll wait. ...). See - even the animals are involved in this repentance - cattle, sheep, goats, dogs, cats - all in sackcloth! Because of their change of heart and repentance, God relents in His plan to destroy them. The story goes on as Jonah, seeing that nothing has happened, complains to God, saying that he promised destruction, and after some burlap suits and ash makeup, God forgives them??? He is like the Grinch who stole Christmas, listening for the Whos' lamentation but instead hears "Fah-who, for-aze; dah-who, dor-aze...". He wants to see some punishment!
The lesson for us, especially in this season of Lent, is that God's justice is not directed at punishment so much as it is directed at life and a return to a proper relationship with Him and with others. When we share the Word of God with others, especially when they are ignorant and are living in a sinful way, we must be careful not to expect an "I-told-you-so" sort of outcome - when things go ill for them and we rejoice. That is not Christian; that is not loving; that is not justice. Rather, when we see someone realize the error of their ways and repent, we are to join with the angels and the saints - and with God Himself - in rejoicing over that one sinner who returns.
This is the spirit behind the Church's opposition to the death penalty. When we do not give a criminal the opportunity to repent and be rehabilitated, we are denying them the gift of God's grace that comes when they turn back to Him. Surely, there is justice to be served, but justice and revenge are not the same thing. Yesterday, the Senate of Maryland, who rejected a repeal of the death penalty, approved a limitation on the "ultimate punishment." This is a start, but there is still work to be done. The change of heart that we should want to see in the hardest of criminals often must begin within the depths of our own. How many sizes must these hearts grow?