On the Necessity of Justice for Mercy

We have now entered the Year of Mercy, a wonderful year when we focus on the incredible love and forgiveness that Christ brought to the world. Mercy is a truly heavenly thing. As Shakespeare wrote, “The quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes…” (Merchant of Venice, Act IV Scene I)

And that is the mercy we find in the Gospel. But what about before the Gospels in the Old Testament?

A common cudgel used by secular society against the Church is the harsh justice presented in the Bible before the birth of Christ. Our opponents will point to God sentencing whole populations to death for infractions that are rampant today. What cities in the modern world could pass the test of Sodom and Gomorrah now? Capital punishment was enforced by the Jewish people for idolatry, adultery, blasphemy, and the like. The severity of the rules handed on by Moses sometimes appear at odds with the gentle forgiveness offered by Jesus. But the God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. We didn’t get a different God with Jesus. And God is not schizophrenic. He was not all fiery and angry at first but then mellowed out for the Gospel.

So how do we explain the relationship between a God of severe justice and gentle mercy?

Simple: You cannot have mercy without justice.

We live in a society built upon a solid foundation of justice. This isn’t to say that our society always acts with justice, but we understand what justice is and that it is something at the bedrock of civilization. When you look at the land in which the Israelites were living and the cultures that surrounded them, you do not see this same phenomenon. These were societies with a strong tilt towards vengeance, which is hurting another because of an injury.

In a culture of vengeance, if you were to injury me by, for example, knocking out my eye, then I would return upon you whatever my rage desired. I might say “You took my eye! You injured me! You dishonored me! You deformed me! I go to see a 3D movie now and it has no effect! I KILL YOU! I KILL YOU!” Perhaps this is an over-exaggeration, but the point is that in a culture of vengeance, reprisals were based on a subjective sense of hurt.

Justice, however, works by a different principle. There are many ways to define justice. For the purposes of simplicity, let us take the definition as “paying a debt that you owe.” If I steal $5.00 from you, I owe you $5.00. If I break your window with my baseball, then I owe you a new window. And if you knock out my eye, then the most I can take from you is your eye. Hence “and eye for an eye” is a limitation of vengeance. No matter how I might want to do more injury to you, justice allows only the amount of injury that you have caused because that is your debt to me.

“You owe a debt, you pay a debt.” This is the essential mantra of justice. And this is one of the big messages that God tries to teach the people throughout the Old Testament. It is not an easy lesson to learn and it takes hundreds of years. By focusing His people on becoming a people of justice, He is teaching them the truth about the moral life. Morality is not something that based in subjective feeling. It is based on objective standards. And those standards are universal and binding. The Israelites therefore know where they stand in relation to God by their sins.

But then Jesus comes with His message of mercy. To be sure you will find this theme of mercy in the Old Testament just as you will find appeals to justice in the New Testament. But with Christ we have the forgiveness of our sins. And this is an act of mercy.

If justice is “You owe a debt, you pay a debt,” then mercy is “You owe a debt, and your debt is forgiven.” Mercy is something that is not owed. It is a grace that comes undeserved and unearned. Christ’s gift to us on the cross is not something for which I can ever be worthy. He has offered me a chance for Heaven. I will never be good enough for this gift. Sometimes I think we get the wrong impression that when we die, God will give us what He owes us for our good deeds. I cannot speak for any of you, but the only thing that the Lord owes me is damnation. If I did an honest account of my sins and my lack of love, it would be just for Him to bar me from paradise. I am relying not on justice to save me, but His mercy which is beyond my ability to understand.

So why didn’t God simply begin with a message of mercy instead of justice?

Because mercy makes no sense without justice. Justice establishes that there is a right and there is a wrong. That is the first step out of a culture of vengeance. But if you skip this step of justice and go right to mercy, then people will never learn that sin is bad.

Take a look at children. As they grow, loving parents punish them when they do bad things. If they are never punished, then I would submit that the parents do not love that child. Have you ever met children whose parents never discipline them? Aren’t they most loving, kindest, peaceful, generous children you could meet? Of course not! That is because when they did wrong their parents skipped justice (punishment) and went right to “mercy” in turning a blind eye to the offense. Imagine a child bites someone and the parent instead of disciplining simply says, “That’s okay, that’s okay.” What will the child learn? He will learn that there is nothing wrong with biting others.

Mercy without justice is empty.

That is because giving mercy without justice skips over the fact that there is a right and there is a wrong. Going from vengeance to mercy without justice is to tacitly approve of sin.

I sometimes see this confusion in my students who don’t understand this connection between mercy and justice. Sometimes I am asked, “If God forgives (insert sin here), then why is it such a big deal?” For this student, the fact of God’s mercy removes the badness of the act. For them it is a cold economy. It would be like saying it costs $5.00 for a meal, but you don’t have to pay. For them that means the meal is free. In the same way if you say to them that sin is wrong, but God forgives it, then what they hear is that the sin is not wrong. The key is to get them to understand the wrongness of the act before the forgiveness. The best way to do this is to put it not in economic terms but in terms of relationship. My usual response is, “My wife told me that if I ever cheated on her, she would forgive me. Does this now make it morally okay for me to be unfaithful?” At this point some begin to understand.

It is only when justice is firmly rooted in the person that mercy can then flourish. If justice is in the soul or the person or the society, if we can understand that when it comes to sin we owe a debt, then we can appreciate the significance of the action when that debt is forgiven. Just as a good parent knows that disciplining a child in justice will help shape the moral contours of their soul, that same parent will know when to apply mercy when they see that the child truly understands rightness and wrongness of their actions. In this case, mercy does not circumvent justice, it highlights it. The child knows that they did wrong, but they are pointed to the gratuitous nature of unconditional love.

By the time Jesus came to the world, the Jewish people and much of the rest of the world understood that they owed a debt of sin to God. They understood that they did not live as they should. With this understanding, Jesus did not say that their sins were no longer sins. Instead, He acknowledged the sins of the world and then died for the sins of the world.

So when I go before the cross, I do not go filled with my own sense of entitlement and virtue. I am fully aware of the debt of sin I owe to the Lord. But with this awareness, I am all the more grateful that the Lamb of God took my sins upon Himself and set me free in His mercy.

I owed a debt. That is justice.

He paid my debt. That is mercy.

Copyright 2016, W.L.Grayson

W.L. Grayson

W.L. Grayson

I am a devoutly Catholic theology teacher who loves a popular culture that often, quite frankly, hates me. I grew up absorbing every movie, TV show, comic book, science fiction novel, etc. I could find. As of today I’ve watched over 2100 movies and tv shows. They take up a huge part of my life. I don’t know that this is a good thing, but it has given me a common vocabulary to draw from in order to illustrate whatever theological point I make in class. I’ve used American Pie the song to explain the Book of Revelation (I’ll post on this some time later) and American Pie the movie to help explain Eucharist (don’t ask). The point is that the popular culture is popular for a reason. It is woven into the fabric of our lives and imaginations, for good or ill. In this blog I will attempt to bring together the things of heaven with the things of earth. Of course this goal may be too lofty for someone like me.

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