We often think of justice and mercy as two separate things. Mercy, according to Webster’s dictionary, is
“compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender,” or, “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly.” Justice, also according to Webster’s, means “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assigned of merited rewards or punishments,” or, “the process or result of using laws to fairly judge or punish crimes and criminals.”
I think sometimes in our righteous anger over injustices we may experience or witness, it is easy to not feel merciful, and thus perhaps not be merciful, and simply want our version of justice. I use the words righteous anger purposefully because it is right to be angry over watching or experiencing innocent people being harmed in any way. We when feel angry judgment, and forget or choose not to strive to be merciful, we often adopt a harsh mindset that moves us away from appropriate justice. In the Bible, and within Christianity, justice and mercy are not opposites but are linked. Micah 6:8 reads:
He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
In its commentary on this verse, the Orthodox Study Bible reads:
“The classical definition of true religion: Micah in one verse knits together the basic themes of the books of Amos (righteousness—to do justly), Hosea (steadfast love—to love mercy), and Isaiah (humility and faith—to be ready to walk [or “to walk humbly”] with the Lord your God).”
The Life Application Study Bible offers up this commentary:
“God has made his requirements clear: Do what is just and right, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In your efforts to please God, examine these areas on a regular basis. Are you fair in your dealings with people? Do you show mercy to those who wrong you? Are you learning humility?”
True religion, that is true Christianity that reflects the love of Christ, reflects righteousness or justice, love as expressed in mercy, and the humility that allows us to do this in faith all at once. Christ said in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” He wasn’t talking about discernment of a given situation where you to make a judgment or judgments; He was talking about a sweeping judgment of someone’s entire person.
We, as flawed human beings, especially if we are not living sacramentally and sincerely striving to be Christ-like, have a hard time properly applying judgment, justice and mercy in any given situation that calls for them. We can often make a real mess of things. However, God, who is perfect, through the Scriptures and the consciousness of His Church via the Holy Spirit, teaches us that justice and mercy can be applied perfectly in a spirit of love that redeems a person (mercy) while holding that person accountable (justice) also in the spirit of the well-being of a person.
Consider the example of St. Peter, the leader of the Apostles. At the Last Supper, Jesus reminded His Disciples of what was going to happen to Him. Peter vowed to follow Christ even to the death. Christ told Peter that before the rooster crowed three times that coming morning, Peter would deny Him three times. All four Gospels record Peter’s boast and denials. But the Gospel of John tells us the beautiful and instructive story of Peter’s redemption that models for us God’s perfect mercy and perfect justice.
In John 21, the resurrected Jesus appears to His Disciples one morning on the Shores of Galilee and they have breakfast. After they had eaten, Christ asks Peter three times if Peter loves Him.
“Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Feed My lambs.” He said to him again a second time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” He said to Him, “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You.” He said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because He said to him the third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Him, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.”
In Greek, Christ uses the word agape the first two times He asks Peter if He loves Him. Agape love is considered the purest and most ideal love. The third and final time He asks Peter if He loved Him, Christ uses the word philo, which is love that more akin to a friendship type of love. It is love, but a lesser form of love than agape. Peter is not yet ready to feel or experience agape love. The Orthodox Study Bible comments that Christ condescended to Peter’s weakness and accepted whatever love Peter was able to offer. In this example Christ shows deep mercy. He forgave Peter, did not demand Peter come to a spiritual place in his heart he was not ready for yet, and met Peter where he was.
Yet, in this example, we see divine justice as well. Peter did not escape the consequence of His actions. He suffered great anguish and self-doubt. Yet he had a contrite heart, demonstrated through his bitter weeping at his own failure, and was receptive to God’s mercy and justice. Just as Peter denied Christ three times, Christ “reinstated” Peter by getting him to declare his love for Him three times. Blessed Theophylact comments, “with the threefold question and confession he treats and cures the threefold denial.” St. Bede comments:
“With benevolent foresight, our Lord inquired thrice that by this triple confession He might free him from the chains which bound him as a result of his three fold denial.”
St. Paul writes in Romans 14:12 that we all must give accounts of ourselves to God. In this example of Christ and Peter, we get a glimpse of God’s perfect and loving accounting. Peter’s three denials require a threefold cure. Yet this cure was administered in love as evidenced by Christ’s condescension to Peter. Here we see God’s perfect mercy and perfect justice. It is what we can expect as well. We may want to escape consequences for our wrong actions but if like Peter, if our hearts are with Christ, God will hold us to account out of love for our healing, and meet us where we are to guide us to a higher plane spiritually for our own growth and good. It is this model of mercy and justice we should strive to apply to others as well.