Justice Requires Mercy

Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25

God’s justice is not our enemy.

Now, Western Christianity, for many centuries, has taught us that God’s justice is ultimately the thing we needed to be saved from. There’s this medieval notion that God had a sense of honor, as sense of justice, that, when offended, had to be punished. There had to be retribution. Otherwise, His honor would be degraded, He would not be defending Himself, and He Himself would be unjust. Therefore any sin, every sin, without exception would have to be punished: either directly, by Him torturing you forever and ever in the bowels of hell, or by Him taking your sins from you, putting them on His innocent Son and then torturing His innocent Son on the cross. Either way, your sins get punished. This is the gospel as it has been presented to us for hundreds of years by Western Christianity. It is no wonder that we have so many atheists.

If there was any conflict between mercy and justice, then we would expect to see them contrasted against each one another in Scripture. When mercy is granted, justice should be questioned. When justice is given, mercy should be nowhere to be found. And if mercy and justice were ever to happen simultaneously, Scripture should take notice, discussing the apparent contradiction and the ultimate solution. Yet in Scripture we find no opposition between mercy and justice. Consistently throughout the Bible, justice and mercy are presented side by side, as if they naturally belong together.

For example, Psalm 37:21 [Psalm 36:21 LXX], “The just show mercy.” That verse alone should be shocking to anybody that was raised up under the Western form of Christianity that we have today: this idea that justice and mercy are at odds, and that only through the cross could they reconcile.

Here we see in Psalm 37, it makes this blanket statement about people who are just. People who are just show mercy. There’s no contradiction. That’s part of what it means to be just. If you’re not merciful, then you also are not just.

  • Psalm 112, verse 4 [Psalm 111:24 LXX] says that God is just, compassionate and merciful. There’s no additional comment given to explain any apparent contradiction. It’s simply stated as something that naturally these two should go together: justice and mercy.
  • Psalm 116 verse 5 [Psalm 114:5 LXX] says that the Lord is just and merciful.
  • Psalm 145:17 says the Lord is just, and then Psalm 145:19, two verses later, says that the Lord saves all those who call upon Him. God is just and He saves those who call upon him [Ps. 144 LXX].
  • Proverbs 12:10 says a man who is just is merciful to animals. Well, surely we’re not talking about the crucifixion and some kind of divine retribution here. This is just making a blanket statement. If you are a just man, if you are a just woman, then you will be merciful unto animals. Justice and mercy always go together.
  • Proverbs 29 verse 7 says a person who is just will consider the cause of or be merciful to, the poor. Being merciful to the poor is part of what it means to be just.
  • In 2 Chronicles 12:6 it says that the Lord is just. And then at the very next verse,           2 Chronicles 12:7, we see that He has mercy upon Jerusalem. And again . . . justice and mercy are held up side by side. There is no apparent contradiction, there is no explanation, [and] there is no hint of tension anywhere. These things are simply presented as going together.

Take some time later and look up these verses. Read them for yourself. Read them in context. Never is it suggested that there is any tension between mercy and justice. At no time do these passages ever imply that unusual strings have to be pulled in order to bring them about simultaneously. Consistently, Scripture assumes that justice and mercy are twin concepts and they should normally be seen together.

Here are some additional examples:

  • Psalm 85:10 [Ps. 84:11 LXX] says that justice, peace, mercy, and truth are all close companions. Here again we see justice and mercy included together as going together.
  • Psalm 89:14 [Psalm 88:15 LXX] says that justice and mercy both live in the presence of God. Once again, justice and mercy being held up side by side.
  • And in Isaiah 16 verse 5, it says that God quickly renders justice and it also says that His throne is prepared in mercy. No apparent contradiction here, no tension. God is just and God is merciful. Men who are just are men who are merciful. Women who are just are women who are merciful.

Over and over throughout the Psalms, throughout the Proverbs, 2nd Chronicles, Isaiah, throughout the Bible, justice and mercy are held up as being twin brothers. We even see this in today’s Gospel reading, for the first Sunday after Christmas.

It says, “The birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise, when as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph, her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily,” and then of course we know the rest of the story. God told him, “Everything’s okay, she has not cheated on you, take her as your wife, [and] all will be well. This son being born to her is of the Holy Ghost.”

But notice this: it says that Joseph, being a just man, was not willing to make her a public example. Now let’s put this in context. What is it that Joseph suspects of his betrothed, Mary? What does he think that Mary has done that would make it a good thing for him to divorce her, to get away? Well, she’s pregnant. She has a child and he knows, he knows for certain that he is not the father. He doesn’t yet know that God has miraculously brought about the virgin birth, so Joseph assumes that this pregnancy has occurred like every other pregnancy, that there is some human father involved and he knows it isn’t him.

Now, from a biblical, scriptural perspective, what does a fornicator or adulteress deserve? Death. At the very least, she deserves to be ostracized. You see in Scripture multiple times that fornicators, adulterers . . . they’re called to be put to death by stoning or by burning. It is no small sin. Modern American culture would have us believe that it’s no sin at all, that sex is recreation you can do whatever you want, [that] there should be no penalty. But Scripture says that it is serious — every bit as serious as murder, every bit as serious as theft, every bit as serious as idolatry. It’s a big deal, and since Joseph knew that he wasn’t the father, he had every reason to believe that his betrothed fiancée, Mary, had become pregnant by fornication. He believed that she had done something incredibly wicked, something which according to God himself deserved the death penalty.

Now just based on what he thought Mary deserved, based on the sin that he thought she’d committed, why wouldn’t he want to hold her up as a public example? Show her to the world as the sinner that he thinks that she is. You see, a lot of us would say, “Well, that’s really nice of him, that’s very Christian of him, that’s a good thing that he did, but that’s not justice. It was merciful, it was kind, it was loving, but whatever it was, it wasn’t justice,” because in our twisted, Western, American worldview, we think that justice means to give somebody what they deserve.

We think that if God doesn’t punish every sin, if God doesn’t give everybody what they deserve, then He has been unjust, and that’s where the Western view of the gospel comes from: this idea that God’s honor has been attacked by our sin, this idea that God is duty-bound to defend His honor by punishing every sin, by giving everybody what they deserve. And the only out, they think, is for Him to simply transfer that punishment from us to Christ on the cross, so that we can have a loophole and make our way into heaven anyway.

So what do we see here? We see it say right here in Scripture that Joseph did not want to give her what she deserved. He thought that she had committed fornication, which, biblically speaking, would be worthy of public ridicule, shame, dishonor, she would deserve to be ostracized from the community, and she may even be the recipient of the death penalty. That’s how serious this was, and yet Joseph mercifully thought, “I don’t want to put her up to a public example. I don’t want to make this big deal of her sin. As horrible as her sin is, I just don’t want to put her through that.” He loved her. He had mercy upon her. And what does Scripture say about Joseph?

It says, “Then Joseph, her husband, being a just man and not willing to make her a public example . . .” He was not merciful instead of being just. No, no, no, no, no. According to Scripture he was merciful because he was just. That’s a very, very different way of looking at it, isn’t it? If justice means giving somebody what they deserve, then Scripture would be nonsense, because it would be saying that Joseph, being just, did not give her what she deserved. It’d be saying, “Because Joseph wanted to give her what she deserved, he didn’t give her what she deserved.” It would be nonsense, so that cannot be what justice is. Justice is not giving somebody what they deserve.

These passages we quoted earlier from Psalms, from Proverbs, from Chronicles, from Isaiah: there are a couple different Hebrew words that are used, and you do not want to hear a redneck try to pronounce Hebrew words, so I will spare you. But you can look these up and you will see that these two Hebrew words are often translated as “just” or as “justice,” and in many cases they are translated as “righteousness” or “righteous.” Many times throughout Scripture, this word “righteousness” and this word “justice” are used interchangeably in English, and that should not surprise us because they actually are English translations of the very same Hebrew word. This Hebrew word may be translated “justice” in one place, and “righteousness” in another. Same word, and it makes sense, because even in English a lot of times we use it in the same way. We’ll say, “That’s not justice; he didn’t get what he deserved.” And another person, meaning exactly the same thing, will say, “That’s not right, he didn’t get what he deserved.” We look at justice as being what’s right; we look at righteousness as being just. And throughout Scripture, righteousness, justice, and mercy all go together.

Now that’s not to say that it is ever wrong for someone to receive what they deserve. After all, they do deserve it. There are cases where God knows that it is in the best interests of His people, of the Church, of the nation, of the world, for this nation, or for that person, to receive what they deserve. Sometimes that does happen. But when we think of this word “justice,” that should not be the context that we think about. When we hear the word “justice” we should not think “Oh, the judge’s gavel is coming down and he’s giving them exactly what they deserve.” When we see somebody not give you what you deserve, when we see somebody not give you what your sins deserve, when we see somebody show mercy, we should think, “Oh, okay, this is righteous, this is justice.”

But if justice doesn’t mean getting what you deserve, what does it mean?  I won’t go into great detail today, but suffice it to say that in general the word “justice” means “setting things right.” And in many, many cases, setting things right does not involve giving people what they deserve.

The ultimate focus is not payback for what you did. Did you pay that other person back for what they did? Did God pay these people back for the wickedness they did? The real question is, “Have things been set right?” Yes, this wickedness was committed, but has the relationship been restored? And setting things right does not always require retribution. In fact, I would say most of the time, setting things right requires mercy. Setting things right requires forgiveness. When Joseph said, “I think this great sin has been committed, but I don’t want to punish her, I don’t want to give her what she deserves; I just do not want to make a public example of her. I want to be merciful,” Scripture says that was a demonstration of his justice.

Let us think about the Gospel in that way. Let us think about our families and our friends and every person in our life in the same way. Let us not be out for the jugular; let us not be out to give people what they deserve. Let us not ask God for justice in the sense of the judge just bringing down the gavel. But let us seek justice the way this holy saint, this holy man, Joseph, sought justice. Let us seek to set things right between ourselves and God, between ourselves and our spouses, between ourselves and our children. For if we will show mercy, we will show compassion, that will not put justice into question: it will be a demonstration of justice. For God himself, who is just, had compassion and mercy upon us, and sent His son, not to bear His retribution, not to bear His tortures, but as a gift, because of mercy for His people, so that we could be restored to relationship with Him, so that things could be set right.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. God is one.

Scripture recap:

  • The just show mercy (Psalm 37:21) [Psalm 36:21 LXX].
  • God is just, compassionate, and merciful (Psalm 112:4) [Psalm 111:24 LXX].
  • The Lord is just and merciful (Psalm 116:5) [Psalm 114:5 LXX].
  • The Lord is just (Ps. 145:17),  saving those who call Him (Ps. 145:19). [Ps. 144 LXX]
  • A man who is just is merciful to animals (Proverbs 12:10).
  • A person who is just will consider the cause of [be merciful to] the poor (Prov. 29:7).
  • The Lord is just (2 Ch. 12:6), and He has mercy upon Jerusalem (2 Ch. 12:7).
  • Justice, peace, mercy, and truth are all close companions (Ps. 85:10) [Ps. 84:11 LXX].
  • Justice and mercy live in the presence of God (Psalm 89:14) [Psalm 88:15 LXX].
  • He quickly renders justice, and his throne is prepared in mercy (Isaiah 16:5).

This sermon was preached on Sunday morning, December 30, 2012, at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Dn. Joseph Gleason.


About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in 2 Chronicles 12:6-7, Fr. Joseph Gleason, Isaiah 16:5, LXX - Psalm 111:24, LXX - Psalm 114:5, LXX - Psalm 144:17-19, LXX - Psalm 36:21, LXX - Psalm 84:11, LXX - Psalm 88:15, Orthodox Homilies, Proverbs 12:10, Proverbs 29:7, Psalm 112:4, Psalm 116:5, Psalm 145:17-19, Psalm 37:21, Psalm 85:10, Psalm 89:14. Bookmark the permalink.

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