Mercy and Justice

Divine Mercy, Jesus of Nazareth

Mercy and Justice

Saint John Paul II frequently discusses the relationship between justice and mercy in Dives in Misericordia. It can be difficult to understand how God can be perfectly just and rich in mercy at the same time. Justice and mercy appear to be exclusive concepts. But Saint John Paul says just the opposite: “True mercy,” he writes, is “the most profound source of justice.” Indeed, in describing the relationship between love, mercy and justice, Saint John Paul sees a parallel in the Holy Trinity: “the inscrutable unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in which love, containing justice, sets in motion mercy, which in its turn reveals the perfection of justice.” (1)

To understand this, we have to start by defining justice. We’re inclined to think of justice in a narrow, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” sense. Talk to any small child, and they have a keen sense of this kind of justice. Even adults have a difficult time outgrowing this sense of justice. And often times we take this form of justice and make it worse. We divide the world into groups, with our group being unfairly persecuted and the “other” group unjustly exalted. We reduce the notion of justice to what is good for our group, and lose our capacity for empathy when we see everything through the lens of our group. As Saint John Paul puts it, “The desire to annihilate the enemy, limit his freedom, or even force him into total dependence, becomes the fundamental motive for action; and this contrasts with the essence of justice.” (2)

Jesus challenges us to go beyond this narrow or even harmful sense of justice in the Sermon on the Mount, and Saint John Paul echoes our Lord in Dives in Misericordia. “Justice,” he writes, “by its nature tends to establish equality and harmony between the parties in conflict.” True justice begins with merciful love, which must be reciprocal. Because of its reciprocity, it restores relationships. We are all God’s children. We are all afflicted by sin. We are called to show mercy to one another, to forgive one another, to love one another. That’s what a truly just society looks like: loving each other as brothers and sisters, obedient to our heavenly Father. “Mercy that is truly Christian is also, in a certain sense, the most perfect incarnation of ‘equality’ between people, and therefore also the most perfect incarnation of justice as well.”

The precondition for justice is humility: humbling ourselves to seek forgiveness, humbling ourselves to grant it. “Forgiveness demonstrates the presence in the world of the love which is more powerful than sin… Forgiveness is also the fundamental condition for reconciliation, not only in the relationship of God with man, but also in relationships between people.” Reconciliation establishes justice by restoring the harmony proper to our relationships with God and each other.

Forgiveness and reconciliation, then, do not exclude justice; rather, Saint John Paul writes, justice is “the goal of forgiveness.” The one who is forgiven acts justly by making right his wrong. “Reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.” (3)

These principles are beautifully illustrated in the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. The sinful tax collector Zacchaeus, a man “short in stature,” first humbles himself by climbing a tree just to see Jesus. He must have looked silly climbing that tree, but he didn’t care. He likely didn’t know that his encounter with Jesus would change his life. But he knew enough to know he needed to see this man for himself.

Jesus sees Zacchaeus’ humility and responds with mercy, telling him “Today I must stay at your house.” It’s the same offer he makes to us when we humble ourselves to see him, and most especially when we humble ourselves to receive Jesus in the Eucharist. He quite literally comes to stay at our house! And we are called to receive the Lord as Zacchaeus does, with great joy. The joy of the Lord’s mercy then leads to justice, as Zacchaeus makes this pledge: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have exhorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” In making right his wrongs Zacchaeus is restoring harmony to his community. With this act of penance, justice is served, reconciliation is complete, and Jesus can proclaim to the wondering crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendent of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.” (Luke 19:1-10)


The quotes above, unless indicated otherwise, are from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”).

(1) While God’s mercy is fully revealed in the New Testament, it is important to recognize the emphasis placed on God’s mercy in the Old Testament, “which teaches,” Saint John Paul writes, that “love is ‘greater’ than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice – this is a mark of the whole of revelation – are revealed precisely through mercy.” The Old Testament is the story of the covenant relationship between a loving God and an unfaithful people. Yet God always renews the relationship through his mercy, and foretells of the time when the covenant of mercy will be extended to all peoples through a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

(2) Living in communist Poland, John Paul had an acute sense for what justice without love can lead to: “The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions.”

(3) John Paul adds: “In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult.” The wonder of God’s mercy should not lead us to tolerate sin, but rather, to cultivate a profound distaste for sin lest we or others offend our Lord who is so great in mercy.

Image: Zacchaeus by Niels Larsen Stevns (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).

***Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet every day for the salvation of souls!

***This Sunday (April 19) is the Feast of Divine Mercy. Watch the video below to learn how to receive the extraordinary graces Jesus promised to Saint Faustina to those who celebrate this Feast!


Michael Haverkamp

Michael Haverkamp is a lifelong member of the Roman Catholic Church. He is grateful to his parents for raising him in the faith. He resides in Columbus, Ohio with his amazing wife and three sons. By day he is a (usually) mild-mannered grant writer.

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