Are We Called to Justice, or Mercy?
[Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32]
Fr. Michael Reding
Homily for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Year A
A few years ago, I was filling out a survey, and I came across this question that caused me to pause and reflect. The question said this: “Is it worse to be: (a) unjust or (b) merciless?”
Now, personally, I don’t like statements that are double negatives; they often get misunderstood. So, in order to make sure I understood the question properly, I had to first read it as a positive: “Is it better to be just or merciful?” That’s essentially the question that’s being asked: “Is it better to be just or merciful?”
But even once I’d made sure I understood the question properly, the answer did not come easily. In the Christian tradition, both have their place: justice and mercy. Is it better to be just or merciful? Is it worse to be unjust or merciless?
In the Catholic Christian tradition, we make this distinction between justice and mercy. And I think it’s helpful. “Justice” is to uphold the law. Justice is the right ordering of relationships. Justice is to ensure that we render to each person his or her due. That’s the classical definition of justice.
The Jewish Law found in the Torah is perhaps the ultimate example of Biblical justice – prescribing laws and then dictating penalties for those who violate the laws. If a person commits adultery, for example, they are to be stoned to death. That’s justice according to the Bible.
Mercy, on the other hand, goes beyond justice. Sometimes it might even be seen as a violation of justice. Mercy is not about giving each person his or her due. Mercy is about a kind or compassionate treatment of someone who’s under your power. It’s a disposition to be kind and forgiving. It’s an alleviation of suffering that may go beyond what justice calls for.
This is what we saw last week in our Gospel reading, when Jesus told the story about the laborers who’d been hired to go to work in a vineyard. Remember that story? Some had been hired first thing in the morning. Others at midday, and others just before quitting time. But all were paid the same amount.
Now, justice would say that this is wrong. This is not giving each person their due. And that’s why so many people get angry when they hear that story – because it seems unjust to them. And you know what? It is unjust. It’s not about justice It’s about mercy.
And our first reading today picks up where that story left off. In our first reading today from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, we hear these words:
Thus says the Lord: you say, ‘The Lord’s way is not fair!’ Hear now, house of Israel: Is it my way that is unfair or rather, are not your ways unfair? When someone virtuous turns away from virtue and commits iniquity, and dies, it’s because of the iniquity [they] committed that [they] must die. But if [they] turn from the wickedness [they’ve] committed, and do what is right and just, that person shall preserve their life.
This is mercy in response to repentance. And this is what we see happening in our Gospel reading today as well. You have two sons. One initially says, “No, I’m not going to go out in the fields and work today.” But later he changes his mind and he repents and he goes.
And Jesus says to the chief priests and the elders of the people (Keep that in mind – who he’s talking to here – these are the most respected religious authorities of the day. This is like talking with the Bishops or the Cardinals). And Jesus says to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. [For] when John came to you in the way of righteousness, you didn’t believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes – the most notorious sinners – they did. And yet even when you saw that, you didn’t later change your minds and believe him.”
This is why the righteous sometimes have such a difficult time with mercy. Because they’ve worked so hard to live within the laws – they’ve done everything right. They’ve followed the precepts that justice demands. And then along comes some notorious sinner who repents, and suddenly that person is entering the kingdom of God ahead of them? Are you kidding me?
In a homily last week, on the Feast of Saint Matthew, Pope Francis spoke on this same theme; he talked about how mercy can scandalize those who don’t see their own sin; he said:
“We often hear faithful Catholics who see mercy at work and [they] ask, ‘Why?’”
There are “many, many [people like this], always, even in the church today,” the pope said. “They say, ‘No, no you can’t, it’s all clear, they are sinners, we must send them away.’”
But, Pope Francis said, Jesus himself answered them when he said, I have come not to call the just, but sinners.” So, “if you want to be called by Jesus,” he said, “[then] recognize [that] you are a sinner” and repent.
That’s mercy. Mercy is sometimes offensive. Just like some people were offended by the pay practices of the landlord in last week’s Gospel, some people will be offended by Jesus’ proclamation in this week’s Gospel.
So. Is it worse to be unjust or is it worse to be merciless? Is it better to be just or is it better to be merciful?
The answer to that question is not simple. And the standard of mercy that Jesus holds up for us last week and this week is not necessarily intended to describe how we should govern our world. It’s intended to be a vision of the kingdom of heaven. He says that when he introduces these stories, right?
As human beings living in this world of sinful humanity, we need justice. We need to have laws. We need to have sure punishments for the violation of those laws. Jesus of Nazareth is not an anarchist.
On the other hand, Jesus of Nazareth and the kingdom of heaven is the epitome of mercy. We see it our second reading today, where Saint Paul says,
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
That’s not justice. That’s mercy. According to justice, Jesus should have stayed with the Father and not humbled himself to undergo such suffering. But thanks be to God that he is not only just; he is also merciful.
So. In our human dealings between one another are we called to justice or mercy? The answer is “yes.” Sometimes it’s justice; sometimes it’s mercy. I can’t answer that question for you as an absolute. But for those occasions where mercy is demanded, I thought it might be appropriate to end today with those famous words of William Shakespeare from the Merchant of Venice. Act IV, Scene 1 (the courtroom scene near the end of the play). Portia, disguised as Balthazar, says this:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above the sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.