On Justice and Mercy

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When the upright one renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed. When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live; he shall not die.
Ezekiel 18: 26-28

Amen I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid the last cent.
Matthew 5: 26

Much of my difficulty with God’s ways and many of the teachings of the scriptures lies in my desire for what I perceive as “fairness.” I would love to look at life from my perspective and have a sense that the balance of the scales of Lady Justice will ultimately prevail. When I feel wronged, I want a balanced retribution. When a good person gets ill, I want to see them recover their health as a just payment for their goodness. When people commit acts of terrible evil, I want them to be obliterated from the face of the earth. All of this, however, poses a difficulty, for this is not the way life unfolds. Often my response to the way things are is, as in today’s reading from Ezekiel, “”What the Lord does is unjust?” (Ez. 18: 29)

To read the Word in an open way constantly reminds me that I and the Lord stand in very different places and have very different perspectives. In today’s reading from Ezekiel, we are presented with a difficult description of Divine Justice. The person who has lived wickedly but who turns from that wickedness will live, and the evil she has done will be forgotten. The person who has lived virtuously but turns from that virtue and does evil, who has “broken faith,” will die, and all his good deeds be forgotten. How is this “fair”?

Perhaps thinking about “intention” can help us. One of the commonsense notions that directs our lives is this: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” But it seems that under closer examination this is not really true. In fact, it might be truer to say that, at the level of spirit, intention is everything. The description in Ezekiel of the person who will live is of one whose intention leads to a turning toward God that leads to forgetfulness of the evil she has done. The second person is one who has done good things but whose intention has obviously never fully turned toward God’s way, and this lack of wholehearted abandonment allows him to “break faith” at some point when the choice for good or evil presents itself.

The concluding lines of today’s gospel from Matthew speak to how our entire life formation is about the purification of our intention. “Be well disposed toward your enemy quickly, while you are with him on the way, lest the enemy hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Amen I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid the last cent.” (Mt. 5: 25-6) Our appropriate response to our enemy (as well as our friend) is determined by our disposition of heart toward her. That disposition is one that lives not out of a desire for balance but out of an experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness toward ourselves. Given the hardness of heart and sinfulness of all of us, there must be at the heart of the world an infinite mercy and compassion. Somehow, despite and within all my and the world’s destructive and sinful actions, the life of the world continues. Is this not a manifestation of the boundless mercy of God?

In this light perhaps what sounds like a harsh “sentence” of Jesus is really a manifestation of that mercy? The spiritual teacher Oswald Chambers sees the lengthy imprisonment as what is required if our dispositional life is to be transformed into one of love, mercy, and compassion. The world is not fair, in the sense we tend to desire it, because none of us could endure such a place. We must learn the ways of mercy, toward the world, others, and ourselves, to such a degree that we would not and could not turn from them, but rather that we shall, at the moment of awareness, always immediately turn from those moments when we have forgotten our own sinfulness and God’s merciful love.

There is no heaven with a little corner of hell in it. God is determined to make you pure and holy and right; God will not allow to escape for one moment from the scrutiny of the Holy Spirit. God urged you to come to judgment right away when God convicted you, but you did not; the inevitable process began to work and now you are in prison, and you will only get out when you have paid the uttermost farthing. “is this a God of mercy, and of love?” you say. Seen from God’s side, it is a glorious ministry of love. God is going to bring you out pure and spotless and undefiled; but God wants you to recognize the disposition you were showing—the disposition of your right to yourself. The moment you are willing that God should alter your disposition, God’s re-creating forces will begin to work. The moment you realize God’s purpose, which is to get you rightly related to God’s self and then to your brothers and sisters, God will tax the last limit of the universe to help you take the right road. Decide it now—“Yes, Lord, I will write that letter tonight”; “I will be reconciled to that person now.”

These messages of Jesus Christ are for the will and the conscience, not for the head. If you dispute the Sermon on the Mount with your head, you will blunt the appeal to your heart.

“I wonder why I don’t go on with God?” Are you paying your debts from God’s standpoint? Do now what you will have to do someday. Every moral call has an “ought” behind it.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His HIghest

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