The relationship between justice and mercy are not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love.

Justice is a fundamental concept for civil society, which is meant to be governed by the rule of law. Justice is also understood as that which is rightly due to each individual.

In the Bible, there are many references to divine justice and to God as ‘judge’. In these passages, justice is understood as the full observance of the Law and the behaviour of every good Israelite in conformity with God’s commandments.

Such a vision, however, has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value. To overcome this legalistic perspective, we need to recall that in Sacred Scripture, justice is conceived essentially as the faithful abandonment of oneself to God’s will.

For His part, Jesus speaks several times of the importance of faith over and above the observance of the law. It is in this sense that we must understand His words when, reclining at table with Matthew and other tax collectors and sinners, He says to the Pharisees raising objections to Him, ‘Go and learn the meaning of “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. I have come not to call the righteous, but sinners’ 42

Faced with a vision of justice as the mere observance of the law that judges people simply by dividing them into two groups – the just and sinners – Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation.

One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law. In an attempt to remain faithful to the law, they merely placed burdens on the shoulders of others and undermined the Father’s mercy. The appeal to a faithful observance of the law must not prevent attention from being given to matters that touch upon the dignity of the person.

The appeal Jesus makes to the text from the book of the prophet Hosea – ‘I desire love and not sacrifice’ 43 – is important in this regard. Jesus affirms that, from that time onward, the rule of life for His disciples must place mercy at the centre, as Jesus Himself demonstrated by sharing meals with sinners. Mercy, once again, is revealed as a fundamental aspect of Jesus’ mission. This is truly challenging to His hearers, who would draw the line at a formal respect for the law. Jesus, on the other hand, goes beyond the law; the company He keeps with those the law considers sinners makes us realise the depth of His mercy.

The Apostle Paul makes a similar journey. Prior to meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, he dedicated his life to pursuing the justice of the law with zeal.44 His conversion to Christ led him to turn that vision upside down, to the point that he would write to the Galatians: ‘We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified’. 45

Paul’s understanding of justice changes radically. He now places faith first, not justice. Salvation comes not through the observance of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, who in His death and resurrection brings salvation together with a mercy that justifies. God’s justice now becomes the liberating force for those oppressed by slavery to sin and its consequences. God’s justice is His mercy. 47

Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert, and believe.

The experience of the prophet Hosea can help us see the way in which mercy surpasses justice. The era in which the prophet lived was one of the most dramatic in the history of the Jewish people. The kingdom was tottering on the edge of destruction; the people had not remained faithful to the covenant; they had wandered from God and lost the faith of their forefathers. According to human logic, it seems reasonable for God to think of rejecting an unfaithful people; they had not observed their pact with God and therefore deserved just punishment: in other words, exile.

The prophet’s words attest to this: ‘They shall not return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me’.48 And yet, after this invocation of justice, the prophet radically changes his speech and reveals the true face of God: ‘How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboiim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy’. 49

Saint Augustine, almost as if he were commenting on these words of the prophet, says: ‘It is easier for God to hold back anger than mercy’.50 And so it is. God’s anger lasts but a moment, His mercy forever.

If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected. But mere justice is not enough.

Experience shows that an appeal to justice alone will result in its destruction. This is why God goes beyond justice with His mercy and forgiveness. Yet this does not mean that justice should be devalued or rendered superfluous. On the contrary: anyone who makes a mistake must pay the price. However, this is just the beginning of conversion, not its end, because one begins to feel the tenderness and mercy of God.

God does not deny justice. He rather envelops it and surpasses it with an even greater event in which we experience love as the foundation of true justice.

We must pay close attention to what Saint Paul says if we want to avoid making the same mistake for which he reproaches the Jews of his time: ‘For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that everyone who has faith may be justified’. 51

God’s justice is His mercy given to everyone as a grace that flows from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Thus the Cross of Christ is God’s judgement on all of us and on the whole world, because through it He offers us the certitude of love and new life.

 

Adapted from Pope Francis ‘Misericordia Vultus’ Paragraph 20
42 Mt 9:13
44 6:6
45 cf. Phil 3:6
46 2:16
47 cf. Ps51:11-16
48 Hos 11:5
49 11:8-9
50   Homilies on the Psalms, 76, 11.
51 Rom 10:3-4.

This article can be found in Mirror 0815.