The Hebrew word for mercy is hesed, and justice is mishpat. In the Old Testament, they are opposite sides of the same coin, although hesed is used more than any other word in the Bible to describe God’s love for us. But in the New Testament, they both are expressions of God’s love, where mercy trumps justice. What first-century rabbinic literature called God’s “two measures,” justice (mishpat) and mercy (hesed), were brought together on the cross, and all previous perceptions of justice turned upside down.
Grace gives us what we do not deserve; mercy delivers us from what we do deserve.
The Christian tradition refuses to separate love and justice. In fact, for Jesus, love may be the theological name for justice. Throughout the New Testament, justice gets swept up in righteousness, and both are swallowed up in love. According to Greek scholar Spiros Zodhiates, the root of both the Greek words for “justice” and “righteousness” refers to treating others according to their “character, function, and purpose” to achieve “harmony and congruity.” Is that not a good definition of love?
In Mary’s “Magnificat,” it was God’s mercy, not His justice, that performed the mighty deeds in the song. God’s mercy “scattered the proud,” “put down the mighty from their thrones,” and “exalted the lowly.” And the mercy of God is what “filled the hungry with good things” but sent the rich away empty. The distinctive sign of God’s mercy? It turns the tables on earthly power and prestige, and it elevates the least and the last.
Jesus was known not for His love of justice but for His love of mercy: “Blessed are the merciful,” He said, “for they shall obtain mercy.” And again, “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
In the parable of the unforgiving servant, Jesus urges us to show mercy to those who sin against us. In fact, this theme is so strong that in Palm Sunday, Kurt Vonnegut claimed that mercy is the only good idea that has been introduced into the world thus far.
The Jesus Prayer is one of the treasures of the Orthodox Church, which these sisters and brothers believe sums up the gospel: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The Orthodox repeat the Jesus Prayer over and over again in the course of a day.
Part of the struggle against injustice is to stop the passive consumption of culture and to enflesh faith in the hands and faces of mercy and love. Christians should be active participants in making and evangelizing this “recombinant culture” that is increasingly susceptible to “Rip. Mix. Burn” initiatives. But we do not aim to make it into a “Christian culture,” but a human culture that is merciful and hospitable to all humanity. We would be wise to remember that the best we can do is change the world; only Jesus can save the world. Jesus’ name means exactly who He is: “God saves.” The mission of Jesus is the redemption of the human race and the bringing forth of a new creation.
The current understanding of justice assumes freedom from suffering. In fact, there is a prevalent assumption that it is our just right to have no suffering or pain and, if we suffer, it is inherently unjust. Jesus Himself confronted this in the famous exchange with Peter in Mark 8.24
See, I return good for evil, love for injuries,
and for deeper wounds a deeper love.
—the crucified Christ’s
message to the world, as
written in the fifth century by
Father Peter Chrysologus
But crucified beauty, crucified goodness, crucified truth are God’s notions of justice. The kingdom of God is the reign of mercy and compassion and shalom (peace), which is about right relationships in the midst of all that brings suffering. Justice does not assume freedom from suffering. After all, it was God’s relational being that led to the creation of an imperfect world—one of pain and sickness and death. A perfect world would not have been God’s companion, only His automaton. A “just world” would have been God’s self-reflection—with no rejection, but no romance either; with no betrayal, but also no freedom.
Philosopher John MacMurray, in his Gifford Lectures at Glasgow in the mid-twentieth century, which made such an impression on future prime minister Tony Blair, made this comparison: “The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary, is: ‘Fear not, the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.’”
Jesus doesn’t offer us perfect health and massive wealth. What He does offer us is eternal life and a relationship with Himself, in which nothing can separate us from God’s love. Followers of the Root of David are like bent, gnarled trees on the Oregon coast. The south wind warms them; the gray sunshine nourishes them; the mists of rain and fog fertilize them; and the cold winter winds toughen them.
When the church confronts moments of status confessionis, when the church must speak a “Thus says the Lord” on politics, the suffering will increase, not diminish. But these moments of status confessionis are rare, and their very rarity makes them more powerful, so when the church does speak, people listen. The meaning of Christianity does not come from allegiance to principles of justice or complex theological doctrines, but from a passionate love for a way of living in the world that revolves around following Jesus, who taught that love is what makes life a success; not wealth or health or anything else. Only love.
Christians don’t follow Christianity. They follow Christ. Jesus believed that the purpose of the Law was to structure a way of living together that He called “love.” It is not law versus love. Rather, it is law of love. The main theme in the preaching of Jesus was that life with the Father was all about love.