Mercy and Justice have Kissed

The Readings for Monday, 29th Week, Tempus per Annum (C1)

Stulte, hac nocte animam tuam repetunt a te : quae autem parasti, cujus erunt?
You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?

JMJ

It was an interesting discussion yesterday with the Third Order Dominicans: how do we care for the poor? Actually, the discussion started with a discussion of Theft and the discussion of the 7th Commandment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Did Jean Valjean commit a sin when he stole bread for his family?

The Rich Man says, “I will build barns for my surplus…”

In the Catholic Church there is a doctrine on Private Property: we have the right (from God) to own things. But “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind.” That is to say, God gave everything to everyone and while you have the right to own your home, for example, “The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise.”

The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family.

In short, after providing for your family, everything else is yours in trust from God for the care of others.

I, myself, have no family so I wonder how this pertains to me. I’ve made several choices since leaving the monastery about not owning extra stuff, although I think I fail in this. My apartment seems filled with clothes I can’t wear and food I won’t ever get around to eating. How do I become a good steward? At my age and income status, I can’t pretend to be poor. So, I think I’m obligated by today’s Gospel not to be the stupid man in the parable. But how?

This discussion on care for the poor was preceded by a discussion of the false dichotomy between God’s Mercy and his Justice. God cannot be both, it is claimed. Either in Justice, we’ll all get a slapdown, no matter what we do (because we’re that bad), or in his Mercy, we’ll all be ok – no matter what we do or have ever done. The payoff for this argument is usually not at all theological: we mean it only (usually) in the second person. If I project lots of mercy on God, then, really, you have no right to tell me I’m wrong. If I project a lot of Justice on God, then, really, you had better start doing all the right things and I have the right to judge you too.

Both of these aspects play out in a discussion of sexual matters because the world only thinks about sex as a matter of liberty, but that’s an issue of western, wealthy entitlement. There’s nearly no one involved in the Culture Wars who is poor. So, we tend to argue about matters of leisure (such as sex) because otherwise, we might have to discuss the injustice of our wealth. So, it’s better to say, “You, fellow rich white person, are committing a sexual sin.” And to reply, “You, fellow rich white person, have no right to judge me.” Then we all feel good, having done our religious duty, and go back to being fellow, rich, white folks.

In this we make justice to mean “punishment” and mercy to mean “letting me off the hook”. These definitions are neither of them true, and they make God to be petty as we are.

Mercy is God’s divine and infinite condescension to us in kindness and love. The first instance of this, personally and for each of us, is the creation of the entire world. The second is the creation of your individual soul, an act of infinite love and creation in time that took place at the moment of your conception. All things – all blessings, all punishments, all teachings, all correction, all salvation, all purgation, all joys, and all sorrows – arise from this original mercy, or original blessing, as the former Dominican, Matthew Fox, called it. This is an act of Mercy because God has no need of you, no need of the universe, no need of creation at all. God’s love did this.

Then we want to think of human sin and its punishment. Yet we do not think of, even then, God’s constant mercy. For we know that sin is death. We know that we are cut off from the divine life by mortal sin (that’s why it’s called “mortal”) yet, in God’s mercy, we do not die, we are not “smote”. God lets us go on with an eye towards our repentance and restoration. Almost all of life, then, is a mercy. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions for that is part of the way the world functions: if you kill someone, they are really dead. You will grieve that action even if you are absolved. If you spread hate, you will suffer the social blowback from your actions even if you are able to grow towards love. If you commit sexual sin, there’s the possibility of a child, of disease, of re-writing the reward pathways in your brain towards an addiction. These are parts of the world in which we live and each sin means that we must deal with the actions. That’s not justice, though.

God’s justice is a restoration of right relationship.

Imagine you are building one of the barns in today’s parable. The floor should be perfectly level. From that floor, at perfect 90° angles, should rise each of the walls. This means the walls are “plumb”. The structure is “level, plumb, square, and true”. However, let us say that one wall begins to sag inwards. This wall will – eventually – make the adjoining walls weaker. They may begin to sag. And the roof could possibly collapse. So the rich man calls you back and asks you to fix it – to make the wall square again. The process of returning the wall to plumb, when projected on human relationships, is justice.

If we pitched our economic morals with the same arguments we use for sex, it would sound like this: “You have to stop being rich and share with me!” “You can’t judge me, go away.” Environmental morals are the same: our wealth is destroying the world, we are the rich man in the parable.

We want to think of Justice and Mercy in opposition, but, in fact, they are part and parcel of each other. Justice demands a right relationship. Mercy makes it mutually possible. Justice demands I share my surplus with the poor – not store it up in my new barns, level and plumb. Mercy (God’s kindness) allows me to have the grace to do it. It is not “just” for the rich man to build barns unless it is for him to use the barns to more easily invite in the poor. It is not mercy for us to say, “He can do whatever he wants” for that leaves him in wrong relationship, leaves him in his sins. When we remind the rich man of his duty to justice and move him (through God’s grace) to restore a right relationship with the poor, that is mercy. When we use love to show someone walking away from God the right path, we are merciful: and that restores right relationship to God and others, that is justice.

They do not kiss together: they are the same thing.

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