I was in traffic court a Tuesday or two ago. A serious violation of my sacred Tuesday rule. Because I live in Los Angeles, parking was so scarce that I was afraid I would get a parking ticket while defending myself against the garbage traffic ticket. Nightmare.
So I sit reading my book on a hard, squeaky bench and wait for the courtroom to open, feeling resentful and just a little persecuted. One by one, my fellow civilians arrive, then a few attorneys, and a little later a collection of officers, each prepared to present his perspective on our failings as drivers. The uniforms are armed and intimidating, with beautiful posture. One huge guy sports a flak jacket. I’m feeling very small. Partly I’m offended by this whole situation because I am that girl who defends police officers. I remind my children to do what the uniform says, because those men and women put their lives on the line every time they get dressed. Truly, I am grateful. But that’s also why I’m annoyed, because I don’t think that this particular suburban housewife is a marked threat to humanity, and don’t they have something better to do than pick on me? Not to mention that I myself am a Nag First Class to my sons about all manner of safe driving habits, and frankly I’m more than a little embarrassed.
Eventually, the bailiff comes out, directs the uniforms into the courtroom and ushers the rest of us into the hallway for an orientation. His message is clear: “You may have your day in court if you wish, but you will almost certainly lose.” Innocent until proven guilty does not apply in this venue. If “your officer” (as if I want to have anything to do with that guy) fails to appear, it is your lucky day, and your case will be dismissed. Obviously it’s not my lucky day, because I’m here on a Tuesday. Oh, and my officer is here too. The bailiff urges everybody to plead “no contest” and take the traffic school option if it’s offered, because if you go to trial and lose (which, he reminds us, is the likely result), traffic school is no longer an option. One woman — so desperately wanting to be heard — presents her case in the hallway, pulling out photographs of the intersection in question. The bailiff remains unswayed.
He ushers us into the courtroom. I choose a seat in the back. And while the clerk begins speaking, I hear the voice of a pastor from a recent sermon: “Do you really want what you deserve?”
The readings that week included the parable of the vineyard, a story of an estate owner who goes to the marketplace early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Those workers negotiate a fair wage with the estate owner, and off they go. Hi ho! Hi ho! As the day goes on, the vintner returns to the marketplace to recruit more workers — at 9:00am, noon, early afternoon and even late afternoon — and at the end of the day the workers line up to collect their wages. The vintner starts with the latecomers, and he pays them a full day’s wage. The early birds start to get really excited about this, until they realize that the owner is paying each and every worker a full day’s wage, which now doesn’t seem fair at all.
In a world full of injustices, this description of the kingdom of heaven is not entirely comforting, especially for those of us who are really trying to do the right thing. We get up early, work hard all day, and then the lazybones and lollygaggers end up with the same pay? It’s just not fair.
I think most people prefer to think of themselves as the hard workers who negotiated a fair wage and then got down to business. I do. But what if I am more appropriately associated with the slackers who spent the morning sleeping off a hangover? Or took a long lunch? Or spent an hour shopping on the internet? If I am completely honest about it, have I put in the entire day’s work, giving my best effort from sunrise to sundown? Really?
And the people who come late to the party? There may be more to their story than a malfunctioning alarm clock. Maybe one is a convicted felon without a high school diploma but with two children to feed who cannot find gainful employment anywhere until she finally stumbles upon this crazy vintner who doesn’t check her credentials. Or maybe it’s a gay man who, afraid of rejection — again — resists going to the marketplace until he is so hungry that the risk of rejection is less painful than the nagging hunger pangs. Or an addict who, exhausted and suffering, is willing to work in an attempt to find purpose and relief — even if only for an hour. Because it is a place to start. Or maybe it’s just a regular Joe who tries and falls short and makes the occasional mistake, because that’s what people do.
God’s justice isn’t justice at all. It’s grace.
Shortly after the clerk begins his roll call, a well-heeled gentleman walks in confidently. It appears that he has heard the bailiff’s orientation speech a time or two, as well as the judge’s frequently-repeated guilty verdict. He’s not an officer or an attorney. He’s an experienced visitor to this particular department. The traffic ticket muse sits in the back row, echoing the opinion that everyone should take traffic school if possible. He even advises the woman next to me that she should raise her hand and tell the clerk she has changed her mind. Only one chooses traffic school. It’s an interesting aspect of human nature that we so desperately want to tell our stories — and be heard by a judge and treated fairly — that most everybody risked a guilty verdict (earning a “point” on his record) instead of spending a day in traffic school (avoiding the “point”).
Not a single person in this courtroom wants what he deserves. That’s why we’re all here to object, to be heard, to plead our cases. It reminds me of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, when he says of his fellow convicted criminals, “I’m the only guilty person in the whole place.” I look around me and smile. I may not like to think so, but these are my people.
In my thirty years of driving I’ve only been pulled over twice, and this was the first time I’d actually been issued a citation. The other time I was driving 29 in a 25 (honestly) en route between the elementary school and the grocery store in order to purchase quarters for the book fair. With the kids’ lunch hour approaching, they would soon be inundating the book fair, and we needed change. We had a certain officer in town with a reputation for being completely inflexible. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t pulled over at some point by “Officer Jones” during his tenure in town. He was even mentioned by name in the Driver’s Education course at the high school, so the fact that Officer Jones let me continue on my way without issuing a ticket was no small miracle. That was my lucky day.
The clerk calls my name. He informs me that traffic school is not an option because whatever the officer thinks he saw (which I still disagree with) was not so bad as to warrant a “point” on my driving record. If I plea “no contest,” I pay the fee and then go free. Or I could spend the morning waiting to argue about it and then lose. Nothing against the traffic court judge — I never even set eyes on the guy — but I’m glad he’s not going to judge me because I don’t think I would have enjoyed the process or the outcome.
As much as I’d like to think that I’ve been a perfect driver for 30 years, there is undoubtedly something in my driving history that I should have been ticketed for. And so, no, I don’t want what I deserve. I’m not going to argue about my innocence or my culpability. Instead, I’m going to move on with my day and let my officer do the same. I’ve been fretting about the unfairness of this particular citation for three months, and now I’m going to let the whole thing go.
The traffic court guru in the back row nods his approval.
The court clerk issues my ticket to freedom, out of the courtroom and on to salvage my morning by walking the dog. Along my route, I think some more about that parable of the vineyard. I’m grateful that God doesn’t employ a point system. How blessed is that worker who, from the moment he wakes in the morning, feels a sense of purpose and place. Who has the health and capacity to work a full day. Who feels confident enough to negotiate with his boss for a fair wage. It is a gift he loses sight of when he focuses on the wages other workers receive.
Given the choice between justice and grace, I choose grace.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a little grace.