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Justice: a sentence or two about mercy

July 28, 2013

Week 17 in Ordinary Time (28 July 2013)

Genesis 18: 20-32; Colossians 2: 12-14; Luke 11: 1-13

The three readings todays are all about God’s mercy. Mercy is an idea linked to justice. You could say that justice is what a guilty person deserves, mercy is what a guilty person needs. And in our culture we tend to associate justice with punishment. It’s a deeply embedded attitude. Sins deserve punishment. So we heard from the Book of Genesis about the scandal of Sodom and Gomorrah’s grievous sin! God tells Abraham that he intends to find out what they were supposed to have done and then judge them.

But as the story continues it shows the need for a balance between justice and mercy. We heard a fascinating conversation between God and Abraham, with Abraham acting as the defence solicitor for the innocent people who happened to live amongst the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, innocent people who might perish were God to simply destroy the cities. Another name for a defence solicitor is ‘defence advocate’. Abraham is acting as an advocate for the innocent people, to protect them, to get them God’s mercy. And Abraham wins the argument.

Because we’re human there will always disagreement over how to temper justice with mercy. This week Stuart Hall, the famous BBC radio and TV presenter was back in court, someone who as a young man repeatedly took advantage and crushed vulnerable people for his own pleasure.

Now he is the vulnerable one.

He’s been found out.

It’s payback time.

Justice demands he go to prison; but for how long should we imprison a frail, old man? It’s controversial, and people disagree.

There is never one clear, right answer when humans dispense justice and mercy. And that’s why Christians look to God’s for perfect justice. God’s justice is something different because God is infinitely wise and infinitely good. God knows the full story. And God loves us. So we know that we’ll be judged fairly. “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And what a judge He will be! A perfect judge – someone who knows what it is to be human, to be vulnerable, someone who has suffered tremendous injustice at the hands of human beings. And Jesus is not only the judge but also our defence advocate. God, who has infinite love and infinite forgiveness will give us perfect mercy.

But here’s the rub: before someone can have any hope of getting mercy from a judge they’ve first got to acknowledge their guilt. You see this principle at work in our own courts – the first thing a judge asks before setting a sentence is: ‘did the person plead guilty?’

With God it’s the same. Perfect mercy is only possible IF WE’RE NOT IN DENIAL ABOUT OUR SIN – WE MUST ENTER A ‘GUILTY’ PLEA. We need to recognise that we have offended God by our sin, and be truly sorry for offending Him.

And this is precisely Saint Paul’s message to us in the second reading: he is telling people that when they chose to be baptised as Christians, they were acknowledging they were sinners and having their sins forgiven. They were pleading guilty and then joyfully throwing themselves on God’s mercy. Joyfully, because, as Saint Paul explains, through the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus has re-written the ‘sentencing guidelines’. By overcoming death Jesus has completely cancelled the sentence we had been expecting to get from the judge – death. Saint Paul is saying to his followers: Thank God you pleaded guilty!

Now you may ask, if God is so merciful, what about those poor people killed last week in the train crash in Santiago de Compostella. Why did they have to die?

This is not a new question. When talking about the need for individuals to repent of their sins, Jesus mentions 18 people who died when a tower collapsed in Jerusalem[1]. People were saying that they had been killed as punishment for their sins.

But when we look closely at the reason for tragedies, they always have at their root human folly and sinfulness, which then has consequences for entirely innocent people….

Drivers go too fast, just for the thrill;

Bosses ignore building regulations to maximize profits and buildings fall down[2];

Politicians cling to power through imprisonment and torture;

Terrorists try to impose their ideas through violence;

Millions starve because half the world is greedy.

So sins go on to have a catastrophic effect on the lives of wholly innocent people, happening at random, by chance. A lot of things happen by chance. 363,00 babies are born every day across the world. Last Monday Prince George was born into the privilege of our Royal Family. Another 120,000 babies, one third of all those born the same day, will suffer the tragedy of malnutrition simply by a different random accident of birth. And that is why Pope France repeatedly and relentlessly talks about our need as Christians to remember the poor. He was saying it again this week at World Youth Day in Brazil this week.

Jesus was emphatic about the innocent victims of human tragedy: He said that they are no better and no worse than the rest of us. Jesus uses these random, chance events to remind us to seek God’s forgiveness and mercy before it is too late, before we die. Not all of us are going to die in our beds aged 90: sadly, some of us are going to die unexpectedly, before we imagine ‘our time is up’. Have you ever noticed how it always seems to be other people who die? One day, maybe sooner than we think, each of us is going to die.

Our inevitable deaths have two consequences for people who claim to be serious Christians:

Firstly, we always need to be ready to meet our maker. That means regularly seeking sacramental forgiveness for our sins.

And secondly, it means that when tragedies like that terrible Spanish train crash happen, we, as Christians, should pray for the souls of those who have died. Many of the victims were not expecting to die at that moment, and suddenly they are faced with the consequences of their lives. We should pray for them, that they will be forgiven their sins and pray that they may make their way to heaven. We should do this because we believe in life after death, we believe in the power of prayer and we believe that those people may be purified and come to see God through the spiritual healing of Purgatory.

A final point. If God is so merciful, why does He not answer our prayers when we ask for His help? Sometimes things just don’t seem to make sense. Why do ordinary people have to suffer, through perhaps illness or cruelty, despite our prayers for them?

Some people get frustrated and even angry with the Church or with God when this happens. What can we say? The answer is that we don’t know why it happens like that. Our knowledge is incomplete. Remember, even Jesus, on the cross cried out “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?”[3]

But what we do know is that this world is deeply disordered and that we need to trust in God and seek forgiveness for our sins. It is there in today’s gospel, when Jesus teaches His disciples how to pray. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us.”

And then Jesus goes on to tell the story of the man who wakes his friend in the middle of the night for something that could have waited until the morning. Very annoying. Yet even though he is annoyed, the friend gets up to help him. Jesus says, if that’s the response you get from someone you’ve annoyed, imagine what you’ll get from God, who is infinitely loving and forgiving, if only you’d go to Him for help.

We know that God is infinitely powerful, wise and good. God knows infinitely more than we do. God is the source of perfect mercy. And so we must pray, despite our limited understanding, we must pray to have the courage to place our trust in God.


[1] Luke 13: 1-5

[2] 24.4.13 Rana Plaza clothing factory, Dhaka collapsed, killing over 1,100 people.

[3] Mark 15: 34

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