10/19/2012 08:00 am ET Updated Dec 19, 2012

The Child, the Murderer and the Unfairness of God

I had the good fortune of being at dinner with Father Jim Griffin, a Catholic priest with the looks of a bear-hunter and the eloquence of a poet. He serves a parish in Virginia, the nation's second leading death penalty state; only Texas has carried out more executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Griffin knows something about executions: He counseled 11 men on Virginia's death row whose lives ended on a gurney in a death chamber, needles stuck in their veins.

I couldn't resist. I asked him my burning question: Why are so many Christians who call themself "pro-life" for the death penalty? Why oppose abortion, which kills people before they are born, and not executions, which kills people after?

The priest thought about that for a moment, then said in his easy drawl, "I guess people figure that an unborn child is innocent, but a murderer is guilty and deserves to die."

That answer stayed with me; I was mulling it over when something startlingly new occurred to me about a familiar old story: the one Jesus told about the Prodigal Son.

In that story, the younger of two sons says to his father, in essence, I can't wait for you to die. Give me the money I would inherit from you now. He goes off and squanders it all. His friends (if they ever were friends) abandon him. Destitute and starving, he decides to return home. His plan: make an abject confession of wrongdoing to his father and beg to be treated not as a son -- he did not deserve that -- but as a hired servant.

The father confounds that plan. He sees his wretched son coming from far off. The father runs to him, embraces him. He rejoices and calls for the servants to prepare a feast to celebrate the homecoming of his beloved child.

Someone refuses to join the celebration, though: the older brother. He is not rejoicing. He worked hard, he is innocent of the kind of bad behavior the Prodigal indulged in, and he is mad. What the father is doing is unfair. The older brother calls him on it: How can the father make no distinction in the way he treats the child who does wrong and the child who does no wrong?

Father Griffin answered my question. If the parable of the Prodigal Son teaches us anything, it is this: We humans may make a distinction between the innocent unborn child and the guilty murderer, but God does not. God loves the baby; God loves the murderer. Both are God's children.

We cannot "good" our way into God loving us more. We cannot "bad" our way out of God's mercy and grace. We can do the worst -- even wish our father dead -- but if we turn homeward, he will still run to us and wrap his arms around our bent backs, our tattered clothes, and kiss our matted hair, and wipe the tears from our dirty cheeks.

The night we were at dinner, Father Griffin told a story of one execution he witnessed: The man who was scheduled to die asked the priest to say the "Hail Mary" when the time came to lie on the gurney. Father Griffin began saying the prayer at that moment. He finished, just as the poison was starting to do its deadly work, "pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."

Where was the hand of God in that moment? Surely not on the syringe, pumping death into living veins. Surely it was in the hand of the priest, strong but gentle, laid upon the prisoner, the Prodigal, God's beloved child.