How can God be both Justice and Mercy?

by Angela Jendro

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Gospel Luke 15:1-32 NAB

Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus, but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So to them he addressed this parable. “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing

490px-Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Good_Shephard

by Bernhard Plockhorst

one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders with great joy and, upon his arrival home, he calls together his friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you, in just the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance.

“Or what woman having ten coins and losing one would not light a lamp and sweep the house, searching carefully until she finds it? And when she does find it, she calls together her friends and neighbors and says to them, ‘Rejoice with me because I have found the coin that I lost.’ In just the same way, I tell you, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Then he said, “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them. After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.  When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and

552px-Rembrandt_Harmensz_van_Rijn_-_Return_of_the_Prodigal_Son_-_Google_Art_Project

Return of the Prodigal Son By Rembrandt

I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’ So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ Then the celebration began. Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing.  He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns, who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’ He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”

Meditation Reflection:

Justice versus mercy. How can God be both? And how can we imitate Him when we need to apply concretely a mystery that surpasses our understanding?

In this Gospel Christ illuminates something of this mystery. First, we should remember that we live in a highly competitive culture. Consequently, we feel justice – giving each person his or her due – is necessary to keep things “fair.” Secondly, as St. Augustine pointed out in The City of God, if we are earthly-minded and focused on building the “city of man”, then we often find ourselves at war with one another as we vie for limited resources.

The resources and goods in the “city of God” however, Augustine notes, are unlimited. Moreover, rather than being reduced when given away they multiply, and rather than being limited to temporary gain, they last eternally.

Our human tendency to want justice applied to others but mercy applied to us, often relates more to our striving to build the city of man rather than the noble cause for justice itself. Justice is important, and God is justice as well as mercy. However, we have to be aware of our own prejudices and since we suffer the effects of original sin, we tend to rationalize our double-standard.

The truth is, when God weighs our own faults and violations of divine and natural law, none of us will be able to balance the scale and achieve a just state. We know God cares about justice because for us to rightly spend eternity with Him, the scale had to be balanced and so He sent His only Son to suffer and die for our sake, to tip the scale for us. By helping us reach a state of justice, He acted mercifully.

To even begin to understand something of this mystery, of the harmony between Justice and Mercy in God, Jesus uses comparisons we can relate to – a shepherd looking for a lost sheep and a woman searching for a coin. In each case you or I may not have cared. They care because they view the sheep and the coin as their belonging. When lost, they were impoverished in some way and in finding it their possessions became complete. We belong to God. You or I may not care about a particular person but God does. He views each human person as His own treasure, and to lose one results in a loss, and to regain that person creates completion.

To clarify and impress this on us further, Jesus follows with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (verses 11-32). Whereas in our work life if an employee or colleague leaves it may be disappointing but that person can be replaced by a new hire and eventually life goes on. We see this in every realm of society – politics, business, entertainment, sports – except one, the family. If a child rebels and leaves his or her family, there remains a hole and a lingering pain for as long as the child remains estranged. The family cannot simply find a replacement and move on with life. It will always feel like a loss and incomplete.

The relationship between justice and mercy therefore can only be understood in light of relationship. In the parable of the prodigal son, the rebellious child left home and eventually experienced the reality of the choices he had made. With the money gone, he finally received his due, and this provoked conversion. When he returned home, repentant and interiorly changed, his father was ecstatic to incorporate him back into the family. The older son, focused on the earthly resources, became bitter at the apparent injustice. It wasn’t fair. Had he viewed it from a spiritual perspective, he would have seen that he had become enrichened. Rather than focusing on the fattened calf he felt he “lost” to the feast of his wayward brother, he ought to have focused on the brother he regained.

The deeper we grow in love, the more we begin to understand God’s ways. Rather than seeing him merely as a judge, we need to see that He is foremost a father. He will do what it takes to keep his family together and to help His children flourish. Fathers and mothers make countless material sacrifices for their children and oftentimes with joy. From the outside others might rightly marvel at how this could be. Those who have children however, know by experience the deeper sense of satisfaction and pleasure one gains from these acts.

When considering justice and mercy, Christ exhorts us to view it in light of being God’s possession, His children, and love.

Consider:

  • Consider the difference between being an employee in comparison to being someone’s child. You are God’s own. You are God’s child.
  • Consider how love moves one to mercy and the more loving persons are, the more merciful they become.
  • Consider how you felt when you received mercy or when you gave mercy.
  • Reflect on how justice and mercy relate with one another. Sometimes being just enables one to be merciful.
  • Spend 5 minutes in silent prayer, just gazing on God who is Justice and Mercy.

Make a Resolution (Practical Application):

  • Pray each day for the conversion of someone who has left the faith. If possible, reach out to him or her through acts of kindness and mercy.
  • In light of the parable of the prodigal son, forgive someone who has returned to you apologetically.
  • If there is someone who has made serious changes (for the better) in his or her life, pray about giving them a second chance and incorporating them back into your life.
  • Practice one corporal work of mercy and one spiritual work of mercy each day this week.

 

~ Written by Angela Jendro © 2019

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