Sunday, October 1, 2017

Fairness, justice and God's mercy

Readings: Ezk 18:25-28; Ps 25:4-9; Phil 2:1-11; Matt 21:28-32

Fairness and justice, are they the synonymous, or is there a distinction to be made between these two concepts?

One way of answering this question is to say that fairness sees to it that everyone receives the same. We have six children. Three of them are boys aged 12, 8, and 6. When it comes to dividing up a cake, a pizza, dishing up ice cream or distributing freshly baked cookies, at least one of my boys will complain that one or both of his brothers received more. In an effort to nip such complaints in the bud, I usually do the dishing or dividing right in front of them, deliberately giving myself the smallest slice, the least-filled dish, or the smallest cookie, sometimes even going without, to my disappointment. Once in a while, this tactic works, but most of the time there is a complaint. My fallback position is, "Be grateful for what you have, not envious of what you don't have." Okay, I am done with the hagiography of my own parenting prowess.

Justice, on the other hand, has to do, at least at first glance, with receiving what you deserve. What I deserve likely differs from what somebody else deserves. For example, I could give the biggest piece of pizza, more ice cream or the largest cookie to the boy who, at least in my estimation, had been best behaved that day, who has finished chores, homework, and had a good attitude. But I am pretty sure this would be a massive failure in the minds of my sons as well as not a great way to parent. It is not a great way to parent because it makes my relationship with my children one of exchange, a situation in which love and approval are earned, which has a huge impact someone's self-worth.

Justice must be tempered by mercy. God will forgive anyone who repents at any hour, even in the final hour. Who knows, maybe Hugh Hefner, who had a very strict Christian upbringing, repented this past week as he passed from this world to the next? The person who truly repents will receive God's mercy, even Hugh Hefner. This is what Jesus meant when he told the elders and chief priests "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you." Why? Because upon encountering the Good News, understanding their lack of righteousness, they repented. This is why something very much like this part of the prayer of the great deacon, St Ephrem the Syrian, should never be far from heart and lips of anyone who considers herself a Christian: "Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother, since you are blessed to the ages of ages."



What about justice? I think Pope Benedict XVI addressed this well in his second encyclical letter, Spe salvi, on the theological virtue of hope:
Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened (par 44)
Human justice frequently misses the mark precisely because it is very often not tempered by mercy, or, to use Pope Benedict's word, "grace." Quite often, human-administered justice turns into vengeance, into revenge, it disintegrates into the lex talonis, demanding an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth. In the end, only God is just. Just, or righteous, people in the Bible, like St. Joseph, are considered to be just because they are merciful.

St. Paul's so-called "kenotic hymn," which is found in the longer version of today's second reading, is harmonious with both our Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel and today's Gospel by St. Matthew. Being in the form of God, Jesus did not come to receive the largest portion. On the contrary, he came to receive the least portion or, really, no portion at all. He came to give, not to take. What he came to give is nothing less than himself. Self-giving, self-donation is God's very nature. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is the reverse of worldly greatness. Jesus submitted himself to injustice for the sake of mercy out of love. The name of God is mercy because "God is love" (1 John 4:8.16).

In addition to the harmony found in all three readings for today, the message from God's word is congruent with the Little Way of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, whose liturgical memorial falls on 1 October.

Over and above being fair and just, God is merciful, gracious, even gratuitous. Let the words of our Psalm response be our prayer: "Remember your mercies, O Lord."

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