Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Mercy and Justice

The last two Sunday sermons (the Sunday of Zacchaeus and the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee) have focused on the theme of mercy and justice (you can hear these sermons on the parish web site here and here). My thesis, which I will continue develop this coming week on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, is that far from being opposed to one and other, mercy and justice represent two facets of what the "shalom" or the peace that comes from our right relationships with God, others and self.

As I outlined last Sunday, mercy is how I respond to my neighbor in his or her need. Mercy in this sense reflects my willingness to lift up my neighbor. Thinking about those times in life when we have experienced mercy, we see that, common to all of them, is a felt deficiency of one kind or another. The person who extends mercy to us does so precisely in response to our need. Likewise when we are merciful to others, for example when we forgive, we do so in response to a real lack either in the other person or in our relationship.

To help people understand justice, I asked them to think for a moment about when they have felt unjustly treated. Injustice is more than simply not getting what is due me it has as well the quality of denying me something I need to continue to grow and develop. One of the sins that cry to heaven, withholding wages due a worker, is so horrible because, like murder, it undoes or undermines the future. Injustice betrays our need for a hopeful future, which is to say that justice, grows out of, and completes, mercy.

But where mercy reflects my response to my neighbor's need, justice is concerned with his or her potential. A just relationship is one in which I commit myself to adding my neighbor in the realization of his or her abilities. The inter-dependence of mercy and justice as well as their centrality in the Christian life, or so I suggested in the sermons, are much misunderstood by many contemporary Orthodox Christians.

Too easily we dismiss the works of justice in favor of what we imagine to be the works of mercy. But mercy, responding as it does to human need, has a transitory quality. Once I identify and met my neighbor's need, I'm done. Justice, one the other hand, is open-ended and commits me to a rather more demanding relationship. Why? Because unlike mercy's commitment to make up that which is lacking either in my neighbor's life or between us, just requires from me the willingness to travel with him or her from "glory to glory."

Precisely because justice is a response to human potential, it has a more dynamic, and this demanding, quality. At what point can I really and truthfully say that I have fulfilled my commitment to help another human being grow more fully into his or her own unique likeness to the Thrice Holy God?

Starting as I did on the Sunday of the Zacchaeus, I also highlighted in the sermons that both the works of mercy and justice also make demands on our material wealth. Zacchaeus committed not simply his excess, but the substance of his wealth both to the care of the poor (that is, the works of mercy) and the restitution of anyone that he harmed (that is to say, the works of justice). So too I argued, we how are Christian must commit the substance of our lives to the works of mercy and justice. This of necessity includes, by the way, our material wealth.

Personally and communally, a life of mercy and justice requires from us first of all an attention to our neighbor not only in his or her need, but also in his or her potential. It is not enough to simply say no one around me is in need, is suffering a lack. I also must take positive action to help the person discover and develop their own unique gifts.

This in turn requires from me (and I hope to develop this more this coming Sunday) that I renounce envy and jealousy.

Too many Orthodox Christians, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, set mercy and justice against each other. While there is a certainly biblical and patristic witness that supports this position, I suspect that the "justice" that is condemned is not justice as I have articulated it here, justice as grounded in mercy. Rather what is condemned is an understanding of justice that is used to excuse, or worse blesses, our lack of a generous spirit. It is this deficient sense of justice that Christ condemns in the Gospel:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone (Mt 23.23).

Certainly there are some who appeal to an understanding of justice that is static and narrow. But it is also worth noting that there are also those whose understanding of mercy is sentimental, manipulative and debilitating of others. In both cases what is lost is the healthy balance; there is a necessary and in this life irreducible tension between mercy and justice as the two facets of the biblical understanding of shalom.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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