This reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 27, 2013. For last week’s reflection, click here.
We are often told to think of mercy and justice as opposites. My kids just found a Protestant tract saying we are doomed if God is just. The first problem with this view is that it is completely un-Biblical. In the Bible we are taught to love God’s justice, to seek it above all. The second problem is that it makes nonsense of Jesus. If God’s “mercy triumphs over justice,” then it makes no sense for him to be just sometimes and not just others: why the Cross, why the threat of Hell, if his justice is an evil just to be pushed away?
The full line about “Mercy triumphs over justice” says, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). What he is saying is that we should be merciful if we want to be just – because God is just, and will judge us on our mercy.
Our first reading, from Sirach, says, “God is a God of justice.” Don’t be fooled by those who say this is the “Old Testament God,” conquered by the “New Testament God” of mercy. There is only one God – and Jesus himself says he will come in judgment.
The emphasis here is on God’s impartiality. God does not play favorites. Whether you are rich or poor, you will be treated fairly. Whether you are in the in crowd or the out crowd, you will be judged justly. Christianity is not a chance to triumph over God’s justice; the Bible insists, over and over again, that God “knows no favorites.” Being part of the family does not triumph over justice.
On the other hand, “he hears the cry of the oppressed.” In the courtroom metaphor, that means he is not like the judge who only gives you justice if you can afford a fancy lawyer. We all have an advocate before the Father. But also, in prayer, he will come to help whoever asks for his help.
St. Paul discusses both sides of this dynamic in our second reading. “The crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge will award me.” St. Paul believes he has earned this crown. How has he earned it? By “being poured out like a libation.” (A libation, or “drink offering,” is a sacrifice of wine, symbolic of our life blood, poured out on the ground.) By giving his whole life. God is just: he “rewards” those who give their whole lives to him.
Then where is mercy? “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength” – even when everyone else abandoned Paul. God’s mercy does not come after his judgment, cancelling his justice. It comes before, making us just. God’s mercy is in justification. This is what Catholics mean by grace. Grace is not, as in Protestant theology, God “covering” us or overlooking our faults. It is God fixing our faults, actually making us better. This is why Our Lady, full of grace, is so important: to see what grace does. Grace gives us strength.
But the deepest part of this justice is the fulfillment of our desires. “The Lord, the just judge, will reward me on that day, and not only me, but all those who have longed for his appearance.” This is the real inner core of “being poured out like a libation.” It is not that Paul has earned heaven by something unrelated to heaven. It is that those who want heaven, and live as if they want heaven, receive it. God’s mercy is the grace that makes our hearts long for his face.
This is the inner core, too, of Sunday’s Gospel, about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee fasts twice a week, and pays tithes on his whole income. Good for him. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus says elsewhere. “You pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these you ought to have done, and not leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).
The problem with the Pharisee is not that he cares about justice instead of God’s mercy. The problem is that he isn’t just, and he doesn’t care. He isn’t pouring himself out like a libation, because he doesn’t long for the Lord’s appearance. He worships himself, not God.
The one who really longs for God will live a life of mercy: works of mercy to others, and begging the mercy of God’s grace, to make him truly just.
How do you appreciate God’s justice? How do you beg his mercy?