Monday, February 21, 2011

Justice or Mercy

Sermon preached for Epiphany 7A, on Sunday, February 20, 2011.

    Many of us complain that the justice system in our country is broken.  It seems the justice takes way too long, that guilt is not punished, and that the punishment is inequitable.  In those moments we long for the Old Testament justice of an eye for an eye.  In a sense, that is exactly what the Sharia law of Islam offers – blind, swift, and equal justice.  When you are the victim, an eye for an eye sounds great.  But when you are guilty, it does not sound so good.  Today Jesus confronts us with the difference between justice and mercy.
    Justice is the realm of the Law.  Mercy is the new domain of the Gospel in Christ Jesus.  Now, the problem is this.  We cannot live in one domain toward God and live in another domain in the way you relate to one another.  The realm of justice is fair and equal punishment; the realm of the Gospel is mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
    Justice is blind.  Remember the statue of lady justice holding the scales?  Her eyes are covered.  Justice is blind – so that justice is not affected by how a person looks or how much money he or she has.  For justice to be equitable, justice has to be blind.  It is only in this way that everyone is treated just as he or she deserves – not by who you are or what you have.
    Justice is black and white.  There are no ambiguities or extenuating circumstances.  There is no room for justification or excuses of the wrong.  Right is right and wrong is wrong.  Period.  You always know where you stand with this kind of justice.  You always know what to expect from this kind of justice.  It may not be what you want or desire, but this kind of justice is perfectly predictable.
    Justice offers no recourse, second chances, or do-overs.  There is only the fair and appropriate punishment to fit the wrong.  Justice is neat and tidy but it is also blunt and brutal.  There is no justice like this on earth – no objective and perfectly equitable justice.  Ours is always flawed and, in the case of our country, flawed on the side of mercy.  Only God's justice is perfect.
    But do we want God's justice?  From the Garden of Eden the law has been perfectly clear: Do this and you will die.  And from the Garden of Eden on the justice of the law has kept us captive.  We die.  There is no escape.  There is no excuse or justification or explanation.  Death has passed to all because of sin.  This is our heritage from Adam and this is the truth made perfectly clear in the law of Moses.  Wrong is wrong and wrong is punishable by death.  We did not like but we understood it.  We even constructed the laws of nations and states and cities as a reflection of this justice we learned.
    But justice cannot save.  Justice cannot redeem.  Justice may be blind but the eyes of mercy are always wide open and see ever so clearly through the lens of love.  These are the eyes of Jesus who saw what the cross would demand from Him to save us and who saw our redemption as the fruit of His death.  This is the miracle of Christ whose love forgives even those who are killing him/
    Justice is stingy but mercy is lavish and generous.  Mercy gives to the unworthy and the undeserving what they do not deserve and dare not request.  Mercy does not discount the wrong but love pays the price of that wrong so that forgiveness may flow, full and clean.  Justice is black and white but mercy is only white – the white robe of Christ's righteousness that covers up all our sin and wrong.
    Now, don’t get me wrong.  Mercy does not overlook sin as if it does not matter.  Mercy pays the penalty for that sin and wrong – not the guilty pays but the innocent who is Jesus Christ. In this way, mercy always is the last and final word–it trumps justice every time because it pays the price justice demands and then gives away its freedom and grace.

    The heart and core of Christianity is the cross where God shows us not His justice but His mercy, where love is revealed by our Lord who stands where we should stand, the innocent for the guilty, paying our price for sin with His suffering and death.  Sin does not just go away.  It either has to be punished or forgiven.  It is the miracle of mercy that we are not punished but forgiven.   This mercy was won by Jesus' obedient suffering.  God has promised never to change His mind.  Mercy is His final word in Christ Jesus.
    Now the question that comes to us is this: where will we walk?  Will we walk on the path of justice or mercy?  By forgiving us, God has invited us to walk with Him the path of mercy.  This is not merely a one sided relationship with Him but a path in which mercy flows through us to those around us. Forgiving each other as He has forgiven us does not mean we overlook or discount sin and wrong.  What it means is that we look beyond it through the lens of mercy and walk the second mile that only grace can lead us to.
    Mercy is not weakness but the greatest strength of all.  We forgive not because we are weak but because we are strong.  Just as God's greatest strength is not the power to cause disaster or his wrath but the mercy that pays for our sin and release us from its chains in Christ Jesus.  So we are not being asked to be weak nor to ignore sin's wrong.  We are being asked to look to the cross where forgiveness and mercy flow.  To us... and through us...
    Nations and governments must live by the law for our protection.  We abide by those laws as dutiful citizens and we accept the punishment those laws meet out because these are the rules we live by.  But as the family of God the Church and as individual Christians in our relationships with those around us, we live by a different standard.  We live by mercy and forgiveness. Our enemies are won over not because we are right, but because we act honorably and mercifully.  Our reward is not because we are right, but because we are faithful in showing to others the mercy we have in Christ.
    Justice may be neat and tidy but mercy is always messy.  This means that our relationships are made messy by the fact that we are not always repentant or forgiving.  Mercy is not a new law or demand placed upon us but a gift and an opportunity.  Here on earth, mercy means that we may forgive some in our hearts but a lack of repentance means we cannot speak this word face to face until repentance prepares the way.  It means that we are called to act in good faith with all those around us and where others do not respond in the good faith and good will of Christ, we nevertheless pray for them and pray for day to come soon when mercy will reconcile us on earth as Christ’s mercy has brought us peace with God.  When mercy cannot win over our brother or sister, let it not be because we are unwilling to show it.
    If we would choose to let justice govern our relationships here on earth, our lives in Christ enjoying His mercy are a shame and false.  Rather let us be faithful in showing this mercy, in praying for our enemies and those who persecute us, and let us pray fervently for that day when every barrier may be removed and we may show on earth the warm embrace of reconciliation and peace that we have received from God in Christ Jesus. 

3 comments: said...

this is a very good read on the timeless relationship of justice and mercy. Our United States government would be well instructed to follow the letter of this and similar lectures. Thank you for sharing that.

Sherri Munnerlyn said...

I was googling Mercy trumps Justice, and I found your blog post. Here is the illustration I was sharing with Christians, Jews, and Muslims on a discussion board on Beliefnet, Middle East discussion board. White House Correspondent, Helen Thomas, made a statement to a Rabbi a few years ago now, the Jews should leave Palestine and go back to their homes. She was called Anti-Semitic and she retired from her job. From a justice perspective, her comment is understandable. As close to 10 million Palestinian refugees are kept from returning to their homes in Israel/Palestine, in violation of intl law that requires they be allowed to return, Jews from all over the world with no ties to the land are feely allowed to immigrate there. Helen Thomas, an American Christian of Arab descent, should have left the words she spoke unsaid, because Mercy trumps justice. As she speaks of the Jews returning to their real homes in other lands, Sabeel (an organization of Palestinian Christians) states they do not expect the Jewish settlers in the Occupied Teritories to all leave. To insist on this, to uproot them, would be to subject these Jewish settlers to exactly what was done to them when they were forced from their own original homelands in 1947 or 1948, and they do not desire that for anyone. Mercy trumps justice, and calls for God's people to forgive and seek to co-exist in peace with other inhabitants of the land.

Anonymous said...

In some cases it is easy, becasue of our personal attachment, to want "legal" justice to be compromised, but at what cost? Hiding someone's sin, that should have legal consquences, under the cloak of mercy, makes you an accomplis. And instead of helping them, you create more opportunity for sin to abound. I need God's help to piece it all together and then to peace it all togehter again. Please pray for us as we go through this process as a family.