Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Justice is Merciful and Mercy is Just

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Many of you may be familiar with the storyline of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables. For those who are not, Les Miserables is basically about an embittered ex-convict named Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for the piddling crime of stealing bread for his hungry family; but after his escape, he steals from a bishop but is shown forgiveness. After the bishop intervenes to prevent him from going back to prison, a transformed Valjean spends the rest of his life serving God and others. The counter-protagonist is Inspector Javert, who was formerly Valjean’s prison guard, now promoted to be an Inspector of the Gendarme, who pursues our hero like a ferret, and is bent on bringing him to justice. That’s the story in a nut-shell.

The overarching theme of the story is a stand-off between justice and mercy. On one side, you have Bishop Myriel (and later Valjean) as the personification of ‘mercy’, constantly ready to give people a second chance, to expect and hope for the best, and to treat people according to their individual situation rather than according to some abstract rule. And then, on the other side, you have Inspector Javert and all the forces of law and justice—which, when you see how it's put into action, doesn't look nearly as just as it should. Justice according to Javert means rigidity, harshness, and inflexibility. It means applying the same standards to poor innocent Fantine and the unredeemable Thénardier. And it means relentlessly pursuing a good man, a repentant man, for a minor crime he committed decades ago.

Today’s familiar parable also evokes mixed reactions from listeners, inviting us to re-examine our notions of mercy and justice. Just like the story of Valjean and Javert, the parable gives the impression that it all boils down to a choice between mercy and justice; you either choose one or the other, you can’t have both. To some who identify with the late-comers, this parable is an affirmation of God’s boundless mercy: that even those who respond to His loving grace at the eleventh hour are not excluded from the rewards promised in His Kingdom. However, not everyone feels this way. The full-day workers are understandably resentful. Many of us would, of course, identify and even sympathise with these early birds, who had slogged, toiled and put in more effort and time, and still got the same seemingly raw deal as the late-comers. This seems to render all their efforts and sacrifices futile. From their perspective, the Landowner, who is a metaphor for God, doesn’t look that appealing or merciful. In fact, in not showing appreciation where it is due, God comes across as a mean unjust taskmaster. So, is God unjust by seemingly favouring the undeserving over the deserving? Or is that His mercy at work? How do we reconcile the God of Justice with the God of Mercy?

Yes, on the face of it, justice and mercy seems incompatible. So, how can we speak of a God that is both just and merciful? The problem here comes from a confusion about what is meant by the word “just.” To do justice to a person, in this context, means to give him at least what he deserves. This is what the landowner did. All the workers had agreed on a day’s wage of one denarius, and so therefore, the workers who had been hired earlier, have no cause to complain as they were not short-changed. They merely got what they had agreed upon and what they had deserved. The landowner did give the complaining workers exactly what he promised them. Thus if I owe a person a favour, it satisfies justice for me to repay him the favour, but this does not stop me from going beyond what justice alone requires and doing him an additional favour. And this is what the landowner did with the late-comers. To be just means to give someone what he deserve, but to be merciful means to give him better than he deserves. Given those definitions, a person could not be merciful without being unjust or be just without being unmerciful.

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against his justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully… Hence it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof. Thus it is said, “Mercy exalts itself above judgment” (Jas 2:13). (Summa Theologiae I:21:3)

I believe what irks most people about the rationale of today’s parable is that it seems to fly against a hallmark of human justice which is impartiality. “Justice is blind,” goes the saying, and the more impartial human justice is, the better. We cannot play favourites. Our human perception of unfairness in this story comes, not from the interaction between the landowner and the workers but, actually, from the comparison between the pay given the workers in relation to what they worked. Steeped in our flimsy human arrogance and presumption, we assume that the pay here is proportional to the work because that is our earthly measure. We arrogantly presume that this landowner must adhere to our perceptions of fairness and justice because, after all, aren’t those very same perceptions simply brimming with our wisdom and common sense? Our arrogance allows, even demands, that we measure the landowner’s actions by our measures of justice, with no regard to the fact that, at the end of the day, as the landowner reminds all the workers, it is his money to do as he wishes.

But we forget that God is not bound by our human limitations and His justice is different from ours. God’s justice and charity coincide in Him; there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and pardon, and at the same time, there is no merciful action that is not perfectly just. He is both the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. He sees all and knows all. God is not a blind judge. He is not detached, but rather personally invested in each of us. He can no more judge impartially any more than a father can judge his children impartially. Love is not blind, love is bound. His mercy gives beyond what we deserve. He gives us what we need!

As long as we insist on equating “fairness” with “equality,” God’s generosity will never make sense to us. We need to get past our human tendency to interpret another’s gain as our loss before we can truly appreciate the magnificence of God’s gift to each of us. The fact is, no matter how long we work or how hard we try, we can never earn God’s love or His salvation through our own efforts. We would be fools to presume that we come anywhere near deserving the generous payment of eternal salvation offered us by our Eternal Landowner, as we are fond to compare ourselves to others in its attainment. Can you, and should you fault God for lovingly, generously, and mercifully offering us the gift of mercy which none of us deserve? God freely loves us; inviting both the Valjeans and the Javerts of this world to His Kingdom, and awaiting our response, even if some seem to delay in their response. That should be good news for us, rather than an occasion for envy and complain.

So, the next time you feel that God has been unfair, unjust, or ignored you, look to the great saints who lived to love and serve others, lived the idea that the last shall be first, and were too humbly content and grateful to be working in God’s vineyard, to be worrying about who was getting how much mercy and reward, for whatever they were doing!  Love and serve God by loving and serving others, put others ahead of yourself, rejoice at their good fortune and give thanks to God for His abundant generosity and mercies and faithfully believe that God will continue to love not just the Bishop Myriels or the Valjeans among us, but the Javerts too.

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