Justice and Mercy
Justice and Mercy
Newspaper headlines frequently express outrage at judges who are ‘soft on crime’. They come under attack for being too lenient and failing to impose the appropriate penalty for the offence committed.
When I was practising as a barrister, I noticed that the legal profession did not respect judges who were regarded as too lenient. We expect judges to execute justice. We do not expect them simply to be merciful.
On the other hand, we do expect mercy in our personal relationships. A loving parent will be merciful to their child. We expect friends to be merciful to one another. Justice and mercy do not normally go together. We tend to see them as alternatives. We expect either justice or mercy, but not both at the same time.
Yet God is both a God who judges with justice, and also a God of mercy. How can he combine these two apparently contradictory characteristics? The answer is that the sacrifice of Jesus has made it possible for God to combine both justice and mercy.
When I first encountered Jesus, this illustration helped me to understand what Jesus achieved for us on the cross: Two people went through school and university together and developed a close friendship. Life went on and they went their separate ways and lost contact. One went on to become a judge, while the other’s life spiralled down and he ended up as a criminal. One day the criminal appeared before the judge. He had committed a crime to which he pleaded guilty. The judge recognised his old friend and faced the dilemma, which, in effect, God faces.
He was a judge so he had to be just; he couldn’t simply let the man off. On the other hand, he wanted to be merciful, because he loved his friend. So he fined him the correct penalty for the offence. That was justice. Then he came down from his position as judge and wrote a cheque for the amount of the fine. He gave it to his friend, saying that he would pay the penalty for him. That was an act of mercy, love and sacrifice.
In his justice, God judges us because we are guilty. Then in his mercy and love he comes down in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and pays the penalty for us. Through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, God is both just and merciful.
The illustration is not an exact one for three reasons. First, our plight is worse. The penalty we are facing is not just a fine but death. Second, the relationship is closer. This is not just two friends, it is our Father in heaven who loves us more than any earthly parent loves their own child. Third, the cost is greater. It cost God far more than money – he came himself, in the person of Jesus, and paid the penalty of sin.
In our passages for today, we see an example of how these themes of justice and mercy are weaved throughout the Bible.
1. Rely on the justice of GodPsalm 9:13-20
David knows that God is a God of justice. ‘The Lord is known by his justice’ (v.16). He also cries out for mercy. ‘Have mercy… that I may declare your praises’ (vv.13–14).
In this psalm, the desire for justice and the desire for mercy come together. David prays that God will have mercy on him by executing judgment on his enemies: ‘Arise, O Lord… let the nations be judged in your presence’ (v.19).
We sometimes think of justice in a negative way, as primarily about punishment. But justice is also profoundly positive. In Hebrew the word for justice (mishpat) also carries the sense of putting things right. It is because of God’s justice that the psalmist can be confident that ‘the needy will not always be forgotten, nor the hope of the afflicted perish’ (v.18).
Thank you, Lord, that you are a God of justice. Thank you that one day there will be justice for the people of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Sudan, North Korea, Eritrea and every other place where we see injustice in our world today. Thank you that one day there will be justice for the poor and the oppressed.
2. Receive the mercy of JesusMatthew 12:1-21
We sometimes send parcels with the words ‘Fragile – Handle with Care’ stuck on them. Have you ever felt in need of one of these stickers yourself?
Jesus utterly rejected the legalism of the Pharisees (vv.1–12), quoting and fulfilling the prophecy of Hosea: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’ (Matthew 12:7, Hosea 6:6). Justice and legalism are not the same – indeed they can be opposites. Jesus breaks the legalistic pharisaical laws by healing a man on the Sabbath in an act of great mercy, love and compassion (Matthew 12:13–14).
Jesus combines justice and mercy. He fulfilled all the promises of the Old Testament about God bringing justice to the nations. Here Matthew quotes Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 42:1–4), which Jesus fulfilled (Matthew 12:18–21). He would bring ‘justice to the nations’ (v.18c) and lead ‘justice to victory’ (v.20c).
Yet he is full of mercy, love and compassion. ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out’ (v.20). There are times in life when we are physically, emotionally or spiritually fragile – like a ‘bruised reed’ or a ‘smouldering wick’.
Unlike many, Jesus continues to show us mercy, love and compassion when we are weak and fragile. When we are fragile, Jesus handles us with care.
Jesus is quoting one of the ‘servant songs’ from Isaiah 40–55. These songs are all about a suffering servant who will sacrifice his life in order to bring forgiveness of sins (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).
In these ‘servant songs’, God’s mercy and justice come together. The world is set right; injustice and oppression are ended, and the needy and broken are set free. Yet it is God himself who makes the sacrifice, who bears the punishment and consequences of our sins. Rather than being crushed by God’s justice, you are set free by it. At the cross, justice and mercy meet.
Thank you, Jesus, that you came as the suffering servant. Thank you that you enable justice and mercy to come together through your sacrifice on the cross.
3. Rejoice in the sacrifice of GodGenesis 31:1-55
Have you ever experienced a promise of promotion that never came, or spent countless wasted hours working late to complete some thankless task? Have you ever been the victim of envy, false accusation or downright deception?
So much in this passage resonates with our day-to-day lives. In our everyday situations of frustration and pain, it is reassuring to know that the Lord always has the last word.
In this passage we see a breakdown in what was essentially a family business. Perhaps Laban took his son-in-law for granted. Certainly Jacob felt his goodwill had been abused. He felt Laban’s ‘attitude to him was not what it had been’ (v.2). He had given his job 100 per cent effort – he had worked with all his strength: ‘I have served… with all my might and power’ (v.6, AMP).
Jacob’s terms of employment had been very tough. His father-in-law had been a fairly draconian boss. He had made Jacob pay for any loss that occurred due to accident or theft by others (v.39). His working conditions were very unsatisfactory (v.40).
Further, he felt cheated. Instead of putting his salary up, Laban appears to have put it down ten times (v.7). Rachel and Leah also felt they had been hard done by. They had been sold off to Jacob and then watched as their father envied their husband’s success (vv.14–16).
It is understandable that Rachel and Leah felt resentment towards Laban. However, their response was not very gracious. They all ran off when Laban was out at work. They did not give him the opportunity to say goodbye to his children and grandchildren (vv.26,28). On top of all that, for some incomprehensible reason, Rachel steals from her father without telling her husband.
In spite of all this, God blesses Jacob: ‘But God did not allow [Laban] to hurt me’ (v.7, AMP). He becomes more prosperous than Laban. It was actually God who had called Jacob to return home to Isaac and promised him ‘I will be with you’ (v.3). Although Jacob was doing the right thing, the way it was done was not right. Nevertheless, God intervened on his behalf by speaking to Laban in a dream (v.24). But for that, Jacob might have been sent away empty-handed (v.42).
In the end, they negotiate a satisfactory settlement. In the midst of this passage we see hints of the foreshadowing of what was to come. Both Jacob and Laban look to God for justice (v.53). Then there is sacrifice (v.54).
As they seek God’s justice and offer this sacrifice, we are reminded once more of the cross, where God’s justice and mercy come together.
Father, how can I ever thank and praise you enough. Thank you that you are just and merciful. Thank you for the sacrifice of Jesus. Thank you that in times of injustice I can look to you for protection and mercy. Help me to be merciful, as you are merciful to me.
What on earth was Rachel doing stealing her father’s household gods? And, what was Laban doing having household gods?
They had others gods and Rachel had stolen, lied and been dishonouring to her father… No wonder God needed to give the Ten Commandments!