God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

balance-1475025_1920One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him. Both of these are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, but how?

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive, or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the wicked.

A recent reading from the Letter to the Hebrews at daily Mass (Saturday of the First week of the Year) presents us with a balance. It speaks of two very different experiences of God, both of which are needed to balance each other.

The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.

Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help (Heb 4:12-16).

The two parts of this passage are very different. The first uses somewhat violent imagery in describing how closely the Word of God examines us, exposing our hidden thoughts and actions. It speaks to God’s justice, His passion to set things right. The emphasis is on the sobering and frightening truth that we will have to render an account to the Lord for every word, thought, and action, no matter how hidden. Jesus is our savior and brother, but He is also sovereign Lord and judge of the world. He is not to be trivialized, minimized, or domesticated. He is the Lord and we will have to answer to Him.

In contrast, the second half of the passage bids us to remember that we have a compassionate Lord, one who sympathizes with our weakness and offers us mercy, grace, and help. We are encouraged to approach the throne of grace. The emphasis here is on a merciful and kind Lord, ready to be approached and to give us every assistance we need in order to be saved.

So, notice the balance in this passage between God’s justice and His mercy. Remember that both are necessary. God’s mercy is needed now because there is a day of judgment. God is not going to stop being God. He is all-perfect and all-holy. He is the Truth Himself, the refulgent light of all glory. We cannot simply walk into His unveiled presence without first being prepared and purified. And thus He makes every help and grace available to us. He is good to us and patient with us. He is merciful and kind.

In this way, God’s mercy and grace prepare us for us his Justice. But there is no justice if sin is unanswered, or injustice is not rectified. That is why we need both His grace and His mercy. Their purpose is to bring the needed changes so that we can be ready for the day when we shall see the Lord.

As a whole, the text therefore speaks of the Lord Jesus in tightly woven tapestry of darker and lighter themes. It requires careful balance.

Too easily in our times we set mercy and justice in opposition to each other. But where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good; that is why the balance of this passage is necessary. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

So, orthodoxy is in the balance. Both visions of the Lord in the reading from Hebrews above are accurate and necessary. To overemphasize or minimize one is to harm the other.

A mercy that would cancel the requirements of justice would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, a justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

So, balance is the stance of orthodoxy. We cannot ever hope to attain to the glory of God without both the justice and mercy of God.

Balance or bust!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: God’s Mercy and Justice – Balance or Bust!

The Measure You Measure Will Be Measured Back to You, as Seen in an Advertisement

There are many biblical texts that speak of being generous to the poor, for to do brings bountiful blessings. Or, put negatively, if we are stingy, we will come up short in our own blessings.

Consider the following verses:

Here is a promise from the Lord:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap (Lk 6:38).

The text goes on to state a clear principle:

For the measure you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Lk 6:38).

The rule of returning proportion:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).

The Lord the admonishes us with this:

One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty (Prov 11:24).

And now a word from our sponsor (a snack manufacturer in the Philippines), illustrating well this text: Who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. You may find that the ad is “clever by half.”

How Justice and Mercy are Alike with God

Many people today set mercy and justice in opposition to each other, but where is mercy if justice is absent? Could the victims of genocide really be said to experience mercy if their unrepentant killers were ushered past them into the Kingdom of Heaven? Could Heaven even be Heaven if unrepentant sinners dwelled there? At some point, mercy demands that justice rightly separate what is stubbornly evil from what is good. For now, there is a time of mercy and access to the throne of mercy, but there comes a day when justice requires a final answer and verdict. It is mercy that accompanies us to the justice of the final judgement. Mercy and grace prepare us.

Mercy that canceled the requirements of God’s justice and His law would not be mercy at all. It would leave us deformed and incomplete; it would mean that injustice would continue forever. Neither of these outcomes is merciful.

Further, justice that did not rely on grace and mercy would not be justice at all. This is because without grace and mercy, we are dead in our sins; justice is unattainable.

One of the signs of orthodoxy is the ability to hold competing truths in tension, realizing that they are there to balance each other. For example, on the one hand God is sovereign and omnipotent, but on the other we are free to say no to Him; both are taught in Scripture. Our freedom mysteriously interacts with God’s sovereignty and omnipotence.

Heresy will not abide any tension and so it selects one truth while discarding others meant to balance or complete it. For example, is God punitive or forgiving; is he insistent or patient? Too often we focus on one while downplaying or dropping the other. In some eras, the notion of a harsh, strict God was so emphasized that His mercy was all but lost. Today, the tendency is to stress His mercy and kindness while nearly dismissing His role as the sovereign Judge who will set things right by upholding the just and punishing the unrepentant and wicked.

The balance of orthodoxy holds that justice and mercy are alike with God.

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne: mercy and truth shall go before your face (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Yes, in God, justice and mercy meet.


The Cardinal Virtues: Justice

Justice, Raphael Sanzio

As we explore the cardinal virtue of justice, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 57-122), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.

The cardinal virtue of justice enables us to render to others what is due to them on a consistent basis. Justice seeks to observe the rights of all. While it is sometimes easy render to others what is their due, at other times it is difficult; these are the situations in which justice shows itself as residing in the will. In particular, justice seeks the good of others. Temperance and fortitude are internally focused, as they are directed to the appetites and passions of the soul. In contrast, justice is more of an external virtue because it is directed to others. Justice seeks proportionality, such that each person has what is his part, share, portion, or due. Justice seeks to render to each what he should have.

As we have noted before, “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Justice is no exception. There are two fundamental vices opposed to justice:

Injustice is the defect. This is obviously the exact opposite of justice; it strikes against both the common good and the good of individuals. It fails to render to others what is their due. It possesses or withholds unlawfully or unreasonably. Injustice in small matters can be a venial sin; in more significant matters it becomes a mortal sin. One may be unjust intentionally (which increases one’s culpability) or through ignorance or in a moment of passion (which lessens one’s guilt). If one habitually and knowingly acts with injustice, he bears the mark of an unjust person.

Judgment is the excess. Judgment in this context refers to what we call “rash judgment” or “harsh judgment” today. There are, of course, judgments that we should and must make, such as between right and wrong. There are some whose occupations require them to pass judgment; there is no problem with this provided such judgments are conducted with justice.

There are certain judgments, however, that involve an overreaching, wherein we seek to establish justice by excess. For example, out of too much zeal for justice we may rush to judgment without sufficient information; this is rash judgment. Further, in our zeal for justice we may at times render judgments or inflict punishments on others that are overly harsh. At still other times we may pass judgments that are not ours to make. This is usurped judgment, wherein we take justice into our own hands unreasonably and possibly illegally.

Anger is a common response to witnessing injustice. Sometimes out of this anger we sinfully overreach. It is this “excess” of zeal for justice that the true cardinal virtue of justice seeks to moderate.

Thus, justice as a virtue stands in the middle between injustice and rash or harsh judgment. It regulates our tendencies toward those extremes.

Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins which spring from them (which St. Thomas calls “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or recognize it in action.

  1. Commutative Justice – This is justice that between persons; it looks to the exchange of goods in due proportion and with a significant degree of exactness. For example, if I agree to pay you $50 for some good or service, then I owe you $50 when the work is complete. If I pay less or if you demand more, there is injustice.
  2. Distributive Justice – This is justice exercised by the community (e.g., government, Church, religious order) toward its individual members. This type of justice looks to the bestowal of goods rather than their exchange. It is rooted in proportionality of merits or needs. Thus, some with greater merit are rightly honored more highly; those who truly need more are given more.
  3. Restitution – This is the restoration of balance or equality that is due. For example, if I possess something I should not, I must return it, or something of equal/greater value, to the owner. If I have damaged something, I must compensate the owner for the damage. If I have harmed someone’s reputation by false accusation, I must set the record straight. Sometimes acts of restitution are required of more than one person. If multiple people benefitted from something that was stolen, they must all take part in the restitution (though perhaps to various degrees); if several people were harmed, they must all be compensated. All who cooperate in evil must join in making restitution. St. Thomas lists many ways in which one may cooperate in evil or unjust acts: counsel, command, consent, flattery, receiving, partaking, silence, or refusing to intervene or denounce when it was possible.
  4. Religion – It is interesting that St. Thomas includes religion as one of the parts of justice. Most of us think of religion under the heading of faith, which is one of the three theological virtues. Religion, by contrast, is among the moral virtues and is a part of justice because we owe God a great deal. We owe Him a debt of honor, worship, gratitude for He has given us: life and every good thing. Many people today have forgotten this, thinking of religion as essentially for their own good, as something to serve, console, and benefit them. Indeed, there is great benefit to religious observance, but first and foremost, religion is an act or virtue required of us in justice. We are to render to God what is rightly His. St. Thomas enumerates some of the following things we owe in justice to God: devotion, prayer, sacrifices, oblations, tithes, and in some cases vows and oaths.
  5. Piety – This disposes us to show due honor, deference, and respect to those who have bestowed benefits on us and/or have a place of excellence in our life. Clearly piety is due to God, but it is also due to parents, family members, teachers, and leaders of the Church and government. It is due in justice because from God and our parents comes our very life, and from the others listed come the things that make for and supply our life.
  6. Observance – This is a respect we have for those with special dignity among us. This form of reverence is due in justice on account of the excellence of those with dignity; excellence ought to be praised. It is related to veneration or dulia (reverence accorded to saints/angels).
  7. Obedience – This is conforming our behavior to the lawful command of a superior. We owe God absolute obedience. Human superiors are to be obeyed within the sphere of their authority and when what they command is not contrary to God’s law or our duties toward Him. Obedience is a requirement of justice on account of the common good and our obligation to preserve order and charity. Obedience to just civil law is also required of us under justice.
  8. Gratitude – We owe God thanks for all things. We also owe a debt of gratitude to all who bestow benefits upon us. Gratitude should be expressed in words and deeds. In enumerating our debt of gratitude we should take into account especially the disposition of the giver, not merely the size of the gift.
  9. Truthfulness – We ought to speak the truth to others; we owe them the truth. This moral virtue does not require us to tell all that we know, but others deserve to hear the truth from us rather than a lie.
  10. Liberality – Even though liberality refers to giving more than what is strictly due, it is allied with justice because it is related to the proper use of money and the universal destination of goods (wherein God gives all the goods of this world to all the people of this world). Thus excess wealth is rightly shared not only in charity but in justice. If I have excess, to some degree some of it belongs to the poor.
  11. Equity (or Epikeia) – This helps to interpret the mind of the lawmaker in order to best apply the law in particular circumstances. Because laws are most often written in a general way, applying them to specific situations serves justice.

Yes, justice is a many-splendored thing; it is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of justice. Rendering to others what is due is sometimes complex and/or difficult, but it is always necessary. Injustice, particularly accumulated over a long period of time, often breeds anger and even contempt; From such things violence and war emerge.

May justice protect us!

Why Would God Sow Seed He Knows Will Bear Little or No Fruit?

Parable of the Sower, by Marten van Valckenborch

At Sunday Mass we heard the parable of the sower.  Afterward, someone asked me the following question: “Since the sower is the Son of Man, Jesus Himself, why would He, who knows everything ahead of time, sow seed He knew would not bear fruit?”

First, let’s review the text:

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched, and it withered for lack of roots. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit, a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold. Whoever has ears ought to hear” (Matt 13:1-9).

So why would God waste any seed on rocky ground, thin soil, or the path?

Perhaps we can only propose some possible “answers.” I use quotes around the word because we are in fact touching on some mysteries and can only speculate. Here are some possibilities:

I.  God is extravagant. It is not just seed He scatters liberally; it is everything. There are billions of stars in billions of galaxies, most of them seemingly devoid of life as we understand it. Between these billions of galaxies are huge amounts of what appears to be empty space. On this planet, where just one species of bird would do, there are thousands. Likewise, there are vast numbers of different sorts of insects, mammals, fish, and trees. “Extravagant” barely covers it! The word “extravagant” means “going or wandering beyond.” God has gone vastly beyond anything we can imagine, but He is love and love is extravagant. The image of Him sowing seed in an almost careless way is thus consistent with the usual way of God.

Thus God’s extravagant love is illustrated by His sowing the seed of His word everywhere. Love does not say, “What is the least I can do?” It says, “What more can I do?” Love does not say, “I will give only if I get something back.” If a man loves a woman, he does not look for the cheapest gift to give her on her birthday. Rather, he looks for an extravagant gift. God is love and He is extravagant.

II.  God loves and offers the seed of His Word even to those who will reject Him. Remember, as Jesus goes on to explain, the soil that fails to receive the Word is a symbol of those who allow riches, worldly preoccupation, persecution, and the demands of the Word to draw them away from God. Even knowing this, God still loves them. He still wills their existence. Scripture says elsewhere, But I tell you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:44-45).

Yes, God loves even those who will ultimately reject Him. Despite knowing this ahead of time, He will not say, “You cannot have my word; I refuse to provide you sufficient grace.” No, He scatters that seed even though He knows it will not bear the fruit He wishes. Further, He continues to send the sun and rain even on those who will reject Him.

This parable shows forth God’s unfailing love. He sows seed even knowing it will not bear the fruit He wants. He wills the existence of all, even those who He knows will reject Him.

III.  God is just. Were the Lord to take back the seed that fell in unfruitful places, one could argue that He withdrew His grace and that people were lost as a result. In other words, one could claim that God manipulated the process by withdrawing every possible grace. But God, in justice, calls everyone and offers everyone sufficient grace for them to come to faith and salvation.

IV.  God respects our freedom. The various places the seed falls is indicative of human freedom more so than illustrative of God’s intent. God freely offers the grace of His word, but we must freely receive it into the soil of our life. Some of us insist on having stony hearts or immersing ourselves in the cares of the world. God will offer the seed, respecting our freedom to be receptive or refusing. Were He to condition His offer and blessings on us offering the right kind of soil, one could reasonably argue that he was pressuring us or manipulating our freedom.

V.  God wants us to persevere, to sow faithfully rather than merely harvesting. Sometimes we can become discouraged when it seems that our work has borne little fruit. The temptation is to give up. There’s an old saying, “God calls us to be faithful, not successful.” In other words, it is up to us to be the means through which the Lord sows the seed of His Word. By God’s grace, the Word is in our hands, but the harvest is not.

This parable teaches us that not all the seed we sow will bear fruit. In fact, much of it will not.

The simple mandate is that we preach the Word. Go unto all the nations and make disciples. St. Paul would later say to Timothy, Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction (2 Tim 4:2). In other words, sometimes the gospel is accepted; sometimes it is rejected. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is popular, sometimes not. Preach it anyway. Sometimes the gospel is in season; sometimes it is out of season. Preach it anyway. Sow the seed; don’t give up.

Discharge your duty! St. Paul goes on to remark, sadly, For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry (2 Tim 4:3-5). Once again the message is the same: preach anyway; sow the seed of the Word; persevere; do not give up; do not be discouraged. Discharge your duty and be willing to endure hardship; just preach! Some of the seed will yield a rich harvest, some will not; preach anyway.

So, permit these “answers.” God sows seed He knows will bear no fruit because He is extravagant, because He loves and wills the existence even of those He knows will reject Him, because of His justice, because He respects our freedom, and because He wants to teach us to persevere regardless of the outcome.

Justice and Mercy Are Alike for God

Justice and MercyI recently prepared a talk to present to a group of lawyers on the relationship between justice and mercy. The following is a summary of the basic points:

I. Distinctions – From our perspective as humans, we tend to distinguish sharply between justice and mercy.

For us, justice is the rendering to each person what is due to him or her. There is a kind of “You did it, you get it” mentality (whether praise or rebuke, reward or punishment). For us, justice is about exactness; it about what is required or due.

In contrast, mercy to us is the giving beyond what is strictly required or the withholding of due punishment. Mercy is about tempering the stricter requirements of justice.

Not only do we tend to distinguish between justice and mercy, but we also often set them in opposition to each other. Thus mercy challenges justice and asks it to lessen its demands.

In God, however, justice and mercy are alike; they are as one, simply. God has no “parts” as we do; He is utter simplicity. He is I AM.

As an illustration, think about how, even in created things, aspects that we distinguish from one another exist simply so as to be one. Consider a candle flame. We can discern many different aspects of the candle flame: its heat, its light, its color, and so forth. And while these distinctions can help us, in reality they cannot be so simply separated. I cannot wield a knife and separate these qualities so that I put the heat over here, the light over there, and the color in yet another place. In my mind I can distinguish between these different aspects, but in reality they are so together as to be one.

In God we can distinguish many traits, but in Him they are so together as to be one. Justice and mercy are like this. They are not “opposite” modes in which God acts as if He were subject to mood swings. In God, justice and mercy are not isolated or opposed; they are united as if to be one. This is true with all of God’s aspects. What we isolate, divide, and distinguish, are in God more simply united. They are one in Him, who is being itself, who describes himself simply as I AM.

Therefore, when we discuss the relationship between justice and mercy in the Church and in God, we must avoid distinctions that merely see them in opposition. We must seek to see them as rooted in God, simply, and in a way that harmonizes them.

As always, St. Thomas Aquinas is of great help in both distinguishing between and uniting justice and mercy. He reminds us that our understanding of God’s justice must always include that fact that it presupposes His mercy and is founded upon it! To those who would set justice and mercy in opposition St. Thomas says,

It is said (Psalm 24:10), “All the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth.” … Thus justice must exist in all God’s works. [But] the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon …. We may say, for instance, that to possess hands is due to man on account of his rational soul; and his rational soul is due to him that he may be man; [but] his being man is on account of the divine goodness. So, in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy. In all that follows, the power of mercy remains, and works indeed with even greater force; as the influence of the first cause is more intense than that of second causes … (Summa Theologica Pars Prima, q. 21 art 4).

In other words, whatever may seem due to us by God (given that He has created us and that we require certain things in order to be what we are), we ultimately confront the truth that we are not necessary beings; we are contingent beings. Our entire existence is therefore an act of pure mercy and love by God. Yes, whatever might seem due to us on account of God’s justice is ultimately founded upon an act of His grace and mercy: our very existence.

For God, therefore, justice and mercy cannot so easily be set in opposition to each other. On account of His mercy in creating us, his justice is built and it flows. Though justice and mercy are distinct in our minds, In God they exist more simply. Some of this is brought out in the Book of Psalms, where the rhyme is in the thought rather than the sound. Similar thoughts are paired together and rhyme. Consider just three examples:

  • The LORD loves righteousness and justice. His mercy fills the earth (Ps 35:5).
  • Righteousness and justice are the habitation of your throne:
    mercy and truth shall go before your face
    (Ps 89:14).
  • Hear my prayer, O LORD; give ear to my pleas for mercy! Because of your faithfulness and justice, answer me (Ps 143:1).

Notice that in God, justice and righteous rhyme with mercy and faithfulness. That is to say, they are more alike than different.

II. Definition – How, then, can we define God’s justice?

God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises. This definition unites God’s justice and mercy and shows how His justice rests on His mercy and presupposes it.

As an illustration, consider one of the most fundamental promises of God in the Old Testament and see how it makes for the foundation of God’s justice and the whole of the moral law:

[O My people], I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my statutes (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

This merciful promise of God to us should revolutionize our understanding of His law and the justice it declares. It moves law from a merely prescriptive set of requirements to a more descriptive assertion of what God will accomplish for the believer as a work of His mercy. God’s law is a description of the transformed human person. It is what become like when God mercifully cleanses us of our idols and then takes our stony hearts and gives us true, transformed hearts.

This is a very different understanding of God’s law than conceiving of it merely as a list of requirements (that we’d better do, or else). No, God’s justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises to save us from our sins, to transform us, to configure us to what is right and just, and to restore us to a right relationship with Him and one another. It is a work of God’s mercy to conform us to His justice!

III. Delineations and Difficulties – We see that God’s law is not a threatening or oppressive expression of raw justice in the detached, worldly sense. Rather, it is an expression of His merciful promise to restore us and transform us.

The law does provide metrics. The transformed human person is one thing rather than another: he is generous rather than greedy, chaste rather than impure, he loves God and neighbor, he has authority over his anger, and so forth. The law paints a picture; it is a description before it is a prescription.

True charity and mercy do not abridge or dilute the law. Mercy points to the law, it is its origin and manifestation. To dilute the law or to think that mercy merely sets it aside is a foundational error and is in fact most unmerciful.

But what about difficulties and seemingly paradoxical realities such as punishment, warnings about Hell, and suffering?

Punishment – Scripture is clear that God’s punishment is rooted in His mercy and love:

My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-11).

Punishment is, therefore, an aspect of mercy. The purpose of punishment is to help us to experience the lesser consequences of our sin so that we do not experience the fuller, more dire consequences. Punishment also imparts a greater a greater understanding of God’s justice and vision for us, as opposed to the false promises offered to us by this world.

For many of us today, it is difficult to see punishment as an aspect of mercy, because we tend to equate love and mercy with mere kindness or approval. It is an immature notion of love that says, “If you love me you will always be nice and kind, and you’ll let me do and be whatever I please.” God loves us too much to yield to that notion of love and mercy.

Hell – I have written much on this topic before. Briefly, Hell exists as a manifestation of God’s respect for our freedom. By a sheer act of His mercy, God created each of us and summoned us to love. But love requires a fundamental freedom that is not haphazardly abridged (or set aside altogether) by God when we make choices that reject His plan for us. Scripture indicates that many people mysteriously reject God, and they do so in ways that tend to become ever more firm over the years if they do not yield to the grace of repentance that God consistently offers. Heaven is not a designer paradise. It is the full manifestation of the truths and values of God’s Kingdom. It includes the deep love and ongoing worship of God. It fully manifests things like love of one’s neighbor (and even one’s enemy), esteem for the poor, chastity, forgiveness, and generosity. There are some people who do not esteem or want things like this; God will not force them to esteem or accept such virtues or the fruits that come from them. Hell is a place apart that some mysteriously prefer in an ever-deepening way. There comes a moment when our decision becomes final and forever fixed. Judgment and the “Depart from me!” that God utters is rooted in His respect for our freedom. This freedom is a glory He mercifully gave us and which He mercifully respects, even if it means accepting that we reject Him and the Kingdom He offers. To force Heaven on those who do not want what it clearly is, would neither be just nor merciful.

Suffering – God offered Adam and Eve the paradise of the Garden of Eden. But despite being warned of the suffering and death it would bring, they still freely chose to know and experience evil for themselves rather than trust God’s teaching. As a result of this, we now live in paradise lost. All of us have ratified their choice by our own sins. In His just respect for human freedom, God did not overrule Adam and Eve’s free choice. Instead, he mercifully works with and through the very suffering and death they/we chose as a way back. It is the way of the cross, and justice and mercy meet at the cross. Mercy and faithfulness have met; justice and peace have embraced (Psalm 85:11). In the suffering heart of Christ on the cross, we see the truest and most vivid way that justice and mercy are alike in God. While there are many mysteries related to suffering, God permits it for some greater good. In allowing suffering, God respects our freedom. Most of us know that suffering promotes growth in us, prunes our heart of often-disordered desires, and bestows on us greater wisdom than do the mere frivolities of this life.

IV. Duties – Having set forth some insights into the relationship between mercy and justice in God’s Law, I cannot in a brief reflection propose a complete legal philosophy for civil lawyers. As human beings we cannot comprehend all things or embrace them “simply,” as God does. God’s Law as revealed is perfect and eternal; our laws are imperfect and passing, as circumstances sometimes require.

And yet what is best in our human legal system does reflect God’s law, which we access by both reason and revelation. In order that our imperfect legal system may better reflect God’s perfect law, let me propose to you that as Catholic and Christian lawyers you do well to ponder (especially in this Year of Mercy) how to make it better reflect that mercy and justice are not opposed to each other, but go hand in hand.

Thus, one error to avoid is that of legalism, which idolizes the letter of the law and forgets that even its human authors conceived of it for the common good. The law is a mercy before it is a mandate. It is meant to be for man, not against him; It is meant to promote our welfare not imperil it. As such, the law must have some leeway that accounts for special circumstances and unforeseen situations. Law speaks to the general, but not to every specific. “Zero tolerance” policies should be rare; they often result in foolish, excessive outcomes.

And yet the opposite error is also to be avoided: dismissing the role of law in setting norms and ensuring an equitable playing field. Too often today, sentimentalism seeks to supplant the role of law in ensuring justice. Paradoxically, ensuring justice is actually a very merciful thing to do. It makes the world more certain and stable; it enables people to maneuver more freely and to have recourse when problems arise. The truest freedom is a limited and circumscribed one. Too much freedom is anarchy, which promotes the bondage of chaos, power struggles, and the tyranny of relativism. In its best moments of securing justice and equity, the law supplies precious mercies such as stability, recourse and redress, commonality, and protection.

If God’s Justice is His fidelity to His merciful promises, then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if and how our legal system enshrines the merciful promises that our Constitution seeks to promote: justice, equity, equality, the common good, individual dignity, and the individual rights of every person (including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

If God’s law paints a picture of the transformed human person, then our laws should also paint a picture of the virtuous citizen, who properly provides for himself and his family and who also participates in and respects the common good.

If God’s law provides for punishment with a remedial purpose in mind (and this is mercy), then a Catholic and Christian lawyer ought to consider if our penal system does this to the appropriate degree. Incarceration and other punishments may be necessary to protect the wider citizenry (and this, too, is a mercy), but how do we assist the criminal in becoming a better and more productive citizen (thus showing mercy to him as well)?

Justice and mercy therefore are not opposed to each other; they come from the same font, which is love. Love rejoices in the truth, which the law seeks to enshrine. It is the truth that sets us free, and this is a very great mercy! Even in civil law, justice and mercy walk together and seek the same goal: liberation in the truth.

With God, justice and mercy are alike. Why not with us, too?

Why Does Jesus Tell Us to Use “Dishonest Wealth”?

blog11-8There was a puzzling reference in Saturday morning’s Gospel (Saturday of the 31st week in Ordinary Time) in which Jesus says,

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by your use of dishonest wealth, so that, when it fails, they will welcome you to eternal dwellings (Luke 16:9).

What does He mean by “dishonest wealth”?

The Greek expression μαμωνᾶ τῆς ἀδικίας (mamona tes adikias) is more literally translated as “mammon of unrighteousness.” Mammon is a Hebrew and Aramaic word that has a wider meaning than just “money.” It refers to wealth in general and, even further, to the things of this world on which we rely. But what is meant by the expression “dishonest (literally, unrighteous) wealth”?

There are various opinions and theories. None of them absolutely excludes the others, but each has a different emphasis. Here are three theories about the meaning of “dishonest wealth.”

1. It refers to wealth that has been obtained in dishonest or illegal ways. Now I personally think that this is unlikely, since the Lord’s advice is to take this “dishonest wealth” and give it to others. If one has stolen, the usual remedy is to return the stolen items, not give them away to others. While it is true that the Lord’s advice follows a parable in which a man stole (or embezzled) money, He is not praising the man’s theft, but rather his determination to be clever in worldly matters. The Lord wishes that his disciples were as clever and thoughtful in spiritual matters. So it seems unlikely to me that when the Lord refers to “dishonest wealth,” He means things that we have stolen. If we steal we ought to return the items to their rightful owner, not give them away in order to ingratiate ourselves with third parties for our own gain.

2. It refers to the fact that money and wealth tend to lead us to dishonesty, corruption, and compromise. Because it tends to lead to iniquity, it is called, literally, the mammon of iniquity. It is a fact that Scripture generally has a deep distrust of money. For example,

  • How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:24).
  • Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:9-10).
  • Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God (Prov 30:8).

It’s funny that despite knowing passages like these, most of us still want to be rich! But at any rate, this interpretation sees the expression as referring more to where money and wealth lead us rather than to the money and wealth themselves. Of itself, money is not evil; neither is wealth. But they do tend to lead us into many temptations, to corruption, and to unrighteousness. Hence mammon is called “unrighteous” or is followed by “of iniquity.”

3. It refers to the fact that this world is unjust and thus all its wealth has injustice and unrighteousness intrinsically attached. We live in a world in which the distribution of wealth, resources, and money is very uneven and unjust. Now economies around the world are very complicated matters and there may be any number of reasons for this. Some areas are just more fertile than others; some regions have more oil, etc. Corrupt governments often play a role in unjust distribution as well. We are sometimes unable to help the needy effectively in certain countries because corrupt governments and individuals divert what is intended for the poor. We in America live at the top of the economic system and cannot ignore the fact that our ability to buy inexpensive goods is often due to the fact that workers in other parts of the world are paid a mere pittance to manufacture or harvest those goods. Many of the conveniences and comforts of our lifestyle are provided by people who earn very little for what they do, often without medical benefits, pensions, and the like.

Now again, economies are very complicated; we may not be able to do a great deal to suddenly change all this. But we ought to at least be aware that we live very well while many others do not. Our high standard of living is often the result of cheap labor elsewhere. When I buy a shirt in the air-conditioned store and take it in my air-conditioned car back to my air-conditioned house with its walk-in closet, it ought to occur to me that the people who made and packaged this shirt probably don’t live nearly as well as I do. And the fact that they earned very little for their work is part of the reason that I can buy the shirt for less than $20.

Now I’m not calling for boycotts (they probably just hurt the poor anyway), and I’m not sure exactly how we got to such inequity in the world. I also know that it annoys me when some people want to blame America for every ill there is in the world; there are other factors such as international corruption, poor economic theory, etc. There’s certainly plenty of blame to go around. But the fact is, this world is an unjust place and every bit of wealth we have is somehow tainted by that injustice.

So this final theory is not so quick to call Jesus’ expression “Jewish hyperbole.” Rather, it considers as quite real the notion that the inequities in our world are so vast and exist on so many levels that all the goods, comforts, and conveniences of this world are tainted, are steeped in unrighteousness and inequity. None of it is clean; none of it is fully righteous. In this sense, Jesus rightly calls it “dishonest wealth.”

If that is the case, then what are we to do? Jesus is not unclear: He counsels that we befriend the poor with our “unrighteous mammon,” that we be generous to others who are less fortunate. We who live so well need to remember that the monetary cost of a product may not fully express its true human cost. If we have been blessed (and boy, have we been blessed!) then we are called to bless others. In this world the poor need us, but in the next we are going to need them. If we have been good to them here, then they will testify for us on the Day of Judgment and welcome us to our eternal dwelling. For indeed, the Lord hears the cry of the poor. If they say, “Be merciful to this one, Lord. He was good to us,” then God will hear them. While we cannot buy our way into Heaven, God will be more merciful to us if we are merciful to others. For indeed, the measure we measure out to others will be measured back to us. We should befriend the poor and needy here, because they will be powerful intercessors for us there. Jesus said to the greedy leaders of his time, Give alms and all will be made clean for you (cf Lk 11:41).

There is a powerful passage in Scripture that is addressed to us who have so much. If we follow its plan, it seems to offer hope for us.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life (1 Tim 6:17-19).

I would value your thoughts, distinctions, and additions.

About 20 years ago I toured an old coal mine near Scranton, PA. I was amazed at the conditions and hardships the coal miners had to endure. I often think of them and that tour when I turn on a light or an appliance since our local power plant is fueled by coal. My comfort comes at a higher cost than my bill suggests.

To the Weak I Became Weak – As Seen in a Powerful Commercial

blog10-16-2015The video at the bottom of this post is a heartwarming one with a surprise ending. I see in it an illustration of something St. Paul wrote of the essentially sacrificial nature of evangelization:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor 9:19-23).

To be clear, what St. Paul says here must be understood as solidarity and brotherhood, not compromise with sin or evil. At every level, St. Paul is willing to set aside anything in the moment that hinders the preaching of the truth of the Gospel. Every pretense, every honor, every distinction, every preference that interferes with the message of the Gospel message is forsaken where necessary. There is described here a great willingness for kenosis (emptying oneself).

And of course St. Paul is imitating Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Yes, it is remarkable that Jesus, though sinless, was not ashamed to be identified with sinners. And thus He took baptism at the Jordan. He associated with sinners and ate with them. He underwent the most humiliating punishment meted out to the worst of sinners. Yes, He was crucified, and between two thieves! Everyone walking by that Friday would have said, “Look at that sinner!” (which He was not). To us sinners, Jesus was willing to be seen as a sinner (though He was not), in order to save sinners. And He was assigned a grave with the wicked (Is 53:9).

There is an old saying that Jesus didn’t come only to get us out of trouble; He got into trouble with us. Yes, He endured every blow this world and Hell itself could give. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody but Jesus.

Surely he endured our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Yes, He got into trouble with us and joined us in order to save us:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers He says, “I will declare your name to my brethren…” (Heb 2:9-11)

All these Scriptures ran through my mind as I watched this commercial. To be clear, there is no sin in paralysis. But here let it be a metaphor for our weakness, which the Lord took up, and for our sin, that though sinless, the Lord was willing to be identified with. And what of us? Can we be like St. Paul and imitate Christ in this matter?