I got a traffic ticket on Sunday.
It was an ugly exclamation point at the end of an exhausting weekend. My wife had been in Calgary for a seminar and I had been going nonstop from about Friday noon until Sunday evening. Volleyball tournaments, swim meets, soccer games, piano recitals, a communion service, church meetings, kids’ social gatherings… It just seemed to go on and on. There was just one thing left to do on a late Sunday afternoon before an enjoyable evening with friends beckoned, and that was to drop my son off so that he could get a ride to soccer practice. We stopped at the place where he was to be picked up. I then proceeded to make a U-turn to head off for supper. And then, the ominous red and blue lights in my mirror.
A very nice man in a blue uniform approached my window. Was I aware that I had just performed an illegal U-turn? Yes, yes I was aware. Was I also aware that I had parked illegally before perfuming said illegal U-turn? Again, very aware. I attempted a half-hearted excuse—I was just driving a few blocks to drop my son off for soccer and running a bit late. He nodded sympathetically. Could he see my driver’s license and registration please? It then dawned on me that I did not have my wallet with me—and that failing to have your driver’s license with you in the vehicle is an offence punishable by fines of over $200 in Alberta. My heart sank even further (as if that were possible!). A hat trick of transgressions. My misery was complete.
I’ve been thinking about this experience for the last few days. Maybe it’s because recent conversations on the blog have centred on themes of hell, judgment, justice, etc. I’ve been thinking, specifically, about being on the wrong end of “justice.” On one level, the whole thing was absolutely absurd. I endangered precisely nobody with my illegal activities. I parked on the wrong side of a road for a five-minute drop-off; I did a U-turn on a wide street with zero traffic. There wasn’t a human being within 200 metres of either of my transgressions. I didn’t speed or blow through a stop sign or anything like that. But I broke the law and breaking the law means you pay the penalty.
It’s interesting that justice is often thought to be much more important and necessary when it is to be applied to people who are, well, not me. Justice is important for others—for bad people, for people who don’t believe the right things or do the right things or whatever. But it’s funny how flexible justice can be when I am thinking about myself. I may have done this or that wrong… technically. But there were extenuating circumstances. There are always extenuating circumstances. I was late. I was tired. It had been a long weekend. I missed my wife. I was hungry. I didn’t hurt anybody. I wasn’t behaving dangerously. I had a valid drivers license just a few blocks away (and would be desperately happy to be given the chance to go and get it!). It simply was not fair that I would be forced to pay a fine. I know what the law says, but surely there’s a bit of wiggle room, right? I don’t deserve this.
The Greek word that is often translated into English as “sin” is ἁμαρτία (hamartia) and means “to miss the mark.” As reticent as I was (and still am, to an extent) to admit it, my driving behaviour on Sunday missed the mark of safe, responsible, driving. I knew what I was supposed to do. I knew what the law said and why. I know that laws about U-turns and parking and drivers licenses exist for the safety of many, for the greater good. I just chose to ignore the law for the sake of my own convenience. I had nobody to blame but myself. I missed the mark.
What is true of traffic laws is obviously true on a much broader and more significant scale. There is a goal, a telos of what a human life is supposed to look like. There is a target to hit—a target that we miss with alarming and predictable regularity. Whatever we make of the afterlife, whatever we make of questions about heaven and hell, I think most of us will admit that it is just for wrong to be punished. Most of us know in our bones that missing the mark fails others and our best selves. It goes against the way things are supposed to be, the way things work best. And it carries consequences. We need justice. We need a God who is just.
We also need mercy. God, do we need mercy. And the good news of the gospel is, of course, that by the grace of God we do not get what we deserve for missing the mark. God is just, yes, but God is also gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, rich in love. God is good. God has compassion on all that he has made (Psalm 145:8-9). Christians will probably continue to bicker about the nature and severity of God’s judgment and about the scope and the substance of God’s grace, but however we calibrate our eschatological “positions” we all miss the mark. And we are all in desperate need of mercy. We would do well to remember this.
I doubt the police officer on Sunday imagined that he was enacting a (necessary) theological truth for my benefit. But he was, and he did. He came back to my window with a smile on his face. “I know you’re in a hurry,” he said, “and I don’t want to keep you. I’m giving you a ticket for $115 for the U-turn, but I’ll let the parking infraction and the failure to produce a license go today. Have a good day—and stay safe.” I grimly and penitentially thanked him and rather grouchily slunk off into the rest of my day.
I didn’t think of a $115 ticket as a “mercy” at the time, but I do today. It could have been so much worse (between $400-500, by my math!). I deserved worse. I missed the mark. And I received justice and mercy for my troubles. Thank God for both.
I think mercy works in the opposite way. We need mercy, and the concept of us getting mercy is appealing, but as much as we cherish that mercy when we get it, the concept of other people being given mercy seems reprehensible.
Case in point, I recently was observed failing to come to a complete stop at a four way stop. Similarly my actions put no one at risk, but even though I only did that one thing wrong I got the full ticket for $289. So, needless to say, I resent the mercy you have been given. 🙂
Ah, but would you have resented the mercy extended to me if it had not been denied to you? 🙂
I think you’re right, though. Just like justice is something we prefer for others, mercy is something we would rather keep to ourselves. Others must pay and we must receive pardon. And thus the ugly and selfish picture is complete.
A friend (an Anglican Minister) was driving me in Southern Ontario many years ago. Empty roads and fields for as far as the eye could see.
Suddenly he decelerated to the speed limit of 50 km/h he had been happily ignoring for the last 10 km. We travelled at this speed for about 200 m and then he sped up and zoomed away.
“Why,” I asked, “did you just do that?!”
Turns out he had been stopped for speeding years before on that very stretch and the police officer showed him mercy by not ticketing him. He promised the officer that he would never speed on that stretch of road again….and he is living up to his end of the promise (at least for the immediate 200 m stretch!)
Love this story! Thanks, Mike.
Thanks Ryan. I am glad the cloud from Sunday lifted a bit. I felt bad for you that day. I think I should help you pay for that ticket just for the pleasure of reading this post. Well thought, well shared. Thanks.
Thank you, Tanya.
A very kind offer… But I think that given the theme of the post it would be very inappropriate for me to do anything but pay the full price myself :).
How humble of you to reveal your personal “iniquities” for the sake of dispensing theology. Thanks Ryan.