Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mercy and Justice

The Fifth Sunday of Lent: John 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

“They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”—The scribes and Pharisees thought to accuse him of being opposed to the Law if Christ should forgive the woman, or, if he should order her to be stoned, they would accuse the Lord of being cruel and harsh. But they presumed Christ would forgive her as St. Augustine says, “They saw that he was very gentle; they said therefore among themselves, ‘If he rules that she be let god, he will not observe that righteousness which the Law enjoins. But not to lose his (character for) gentleness, by which he has already won the love of the people, he will say that she ought to be released. And we shall find occasion to accuse him.’ But the Lord in his answer both observed justice and did not forego his gentleness” (Cornelius a’ Lapide, Commentary on John).
Divine Justice: Justice is of two kinds, one regards mutual giving and receiving, another regards the proper dispensing of goods. Now the first kind of justice (called “commutative justice”) can in no way be applied to God, since he has not received anything from another such that he should be in another’s debt. The second kind of justice (called “distributive justice”), however, does apply to God insofar as he gives good things to all according to their proper condition and in accord with his wisdom (ST I, q.21, a.1)

Now, according to divine justice, God is said to owe a debt to himself, insofar as it is required that he should act according to his divine wisdom. When, therefore, God distributes good things upon creation according to his wisdom, he is said to act justly. In a secondary sense, God is even said to owe a debt to creatures, insofar as he will give to all creatures according to what is required by their nature and condition. This latter “debt,” however, relies upon the divine wisdom by which God created all things and assigned a proper place to all. Therefore, in all things, God is said to act with justice, since he always acts according to his divine wisdom (ST I, q.21, a.1, ad 3).

Divine Mercy: God is also rightly called merciful, not however as though mercy were a passion in God, but as regards the effect of mercy. For one is said to be merciful when they are affected with the passion of sorrow at the misery of another, even as though this misery were one’s own. Impelled by this mercy, man acts to dispel the misery of the other.
Now, since there is surely no passion in God, we must not say that divine mercy exists as an affect of sorrow. Nevertheless, mercy does exist in God insofar as the effect is concerned; since God does act to dispel the misery of his creatures by bestowing perfections of some kind of goodness upon them (ST I, q.21, a.3).

And it must not be thought that divine mercy is contrary to divine justice, since in bestowing good things upon his creatures, God acts in accord with his divine wisdom, and thereby distributes these good things justly. Indeed, though according to strict justice God owes nothing to creatures, it is not contrary to justice that he should act with mercy and liberality in dispensing many good things upon them. For in his mercy God fulfills, perfects, and even excels his divine justice (ST I, q.21, a.3 ad 2)

St. Thomas shows that justice and mercy must be in every one of God’s works and that mercy always precedes justice: “Whatever is done by God in created things, is done according to proper order and proportion wherein consists the idea of justice. Thus justice must exist in all God’s works, Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereupon. For nothing is due to creatures, except for something pre-existing in them, or foreknown. Again, if this is due to a creature, it must be due on account of something that precedes. And since we cannot go on to infinity, we must come to something that depends only on the goodness of the divine will—which is the ultimate end. So in every work of God, viewed at its primary source, there appears mercy” (ST I, q.21, a.4). 

Our Lord preserved both justice and mercy in his response, so that, in the end, “he was left alone with the woman before him.”—Cornelius a’ Lapide writes: “‘Two were left,’ says St. Augustine, ‘misery and commiseration;’ deep calling upon deep, the depth of her misery on the depth of his compassion. But she fled not, as having experienced his grace, and hoping for more” (Commentary on John).

The Mercy of Christ: In his Commentary on the Letter of St. Paul to the Hebrews, St. Thomas offers a compelling argument uniting the mercy of Christ to his assumption of a human nature in the Incarnation. St. Thomas argues that, as mercy requires that one should know the misery of another, it was necessary that Christ should take on our passible nature, so as to suffer with us, so that he might be our compassionate and merciful high priest. Indeed, through his temptation and especially through his Passion and death, Christ has experienced our misery and has become most merciful.

Though it must be admitted that “from all eternity through simple knowledge” Christ, as God, knew man’s suffering; it was nevertheless necessary that Christ should experience our suffering as a man, as one of us, so that he might be our merciful and compassionate priest (St. Thomas, Commentary on Hebrews, 4.3 [235]). It was through this suffering that Christ “learned obedience” and, “being made perfect, he became the cause of eternal salvation for all that obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).

The mercy of Christ has become for us an instrument of the divine mercy, dispelling all misery and bestowing the good things of the new and eternal covenant upon all who believe in him.


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