Justice & Mercy
It might sound odd to think of things like justice and mercy as being faith practices. I must admit, I had to spend some time thinking about this one myself. I have read books and articles on spiritual disciplines and faith practices before, and I am not sure I ever encountered a list which includes justice and mercy as being faith practices. But I will tell you that as I have thought about it and researched it more and more over the past weeks, I have become more and more aware of the ways in which these two virtues of justice and mercy are indeed practices that become patterns and rhythms which grow us closer to God.
seems natural to associate the topic of justice within that arena of laws and courts and judges
Maybe we just don’t take the time to think about the ways that justice and mercy have spiritual connection. Maybe we think of things like justice as being about law enforcement. Lawyers and courts and judges deal with justice—that’s the arena where justice happens. Those who have been wronged can bring the matter to trial. The evidence is presented in a court of law. If the defendant is found guilty of committing a wrong, the judge imposes a sentence of some kind and the plaintiff receives justice for the wrong that has been committed. All of this takes place in a branch of government that we call the judicial branch. It includes things like the justice department. We call the judges who are appointed to the supreme court justices. I suppose it might seem immediately natural to associate any thoughts on the topic of justice within that arena of laws and courts and judges.
some passages from the Bible function as lawsuits
That’s actually a helpful way for us to dig into this topic as a spiritual issue. There are passages of the Bible—in the Old Testament in particular—which might be best understood as lawsuits. In Old Testament Israel, judges and courts were not considered to be civil institutions, but religious institutions. The scribes and the Pharisees and the experts in the law which we read about in the gospels were more than just the religious leaders in Israel, they were also responsible for upholding justice among the people. It makes sense, then, that some of these passages from the Bible function as lawsuits, and it is helpful for us to understand them and read them as such. This passage we are looking at today from the Prophet Micah is perfect example. It is covenant lawsuit. Notice the way these verses read as prosecution, defense, and verdict.
Micah 6:3–8 (NIV)
3 “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. 4 I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. 5 My people, remember what Balak king of Moab plotted and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” 6 With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? 7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? 8 He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Verses 3-5 show the prosecution bringing charges against the defendant
Verses 6-7 show the response of the defense answering the charges brought by the plaintiff
Verse 8 provides the verdict
Break it down and look at this passage. Verses 3-5 show the prosecution bringing charges against the defendant. God reminds the court that it is he who rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and brought them to the promised land which had been given to their ancestor Abraham so many generations before. Verses 6-7 show the response of the defense answering the charges brought by the plaintiff. The response of the defense is intentionally hyperbolic—exaggerated on purpose to make a point. It is as thought the defendant is arguing, “what if I come before the LORD with everything possible to be offered in return for God’s favor?” Is such an offering even possible?—and it is exaggerated in order to show us that it is, in fact, not possible. It is as though the answer of the defendant defiantly asks, “what more do want from me?” Verse 8 provides the verdict. You have already been shown what God requires: “To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Justice and mercy are held together side-by-side as the bedrock of what God is seeking in response from his people. Today let’s spend some time trying to figure out what these two virtues are—justice and mercy. Then let’s consider how these two virtues necessarily must work together—we cannot have one without the other. And then let’s consider how this works for us as a faith practice which brings us closer to God and makes us better disciples of Jesus.
Hebrew tsana “humbly” = careful, wise, thoughtful, prudent
How about we actually work backward through the list in verse 8. I will begin by noting this list in verse 8 is not so much a list of three things God requires of us as it is a list of two things with a subordinate clause. Walking humbly with God is not a third item on the list, rather it is a qualifier of the first two items. It might be better understood like this: the way you walk humbly with your God is by acting justly and loving mercy. It is difficult to translate exactly what is meant by that phrase because the Hebrew word tsana which is translated here as “humbly” only shows up once in the entire Bible—here in this verse. It doesn’t really mean humble. It is better thought of as careful, wise, thoughtful, or prudent. The way that we carefully and wisely walk with God is by paying attention to the ways in which we practice justice and mercy.
Hebrew hesed “mercy” = loving kindness, steadfast loyalty, covenant faithfulness
Let’s move on to talk a bit about mercy—or to love mercy Micah 6:8 puts it. The Hebrew word is hesed. It is a word used often throughout the Old Testament to describe the covenantal love of God. In other passages hesed is translated as loving kindness, faithful love, steadfast love, or great love. It describes God’s eternal and unfailing commitment to love his people no matter what. Of the 245 times this Hebrew word shows up in the Old Testament, it is almost always used as an attribute of God. It is rare that we see here in Micah 6:8 that hesed is an attribute which is being assigned to people. Normally it is only God who embodies and shows hesed. Yet here in Micah the verdict in this courtroom scene is that it is now also people who are expected to embody and show hesed—loving kindness, faithful and steadfast love.
we associate a word like mercy with ideas such as compassion
God maintains hesed with his people by acts of mercy
The English word “mercy” is not a bad way to take this Hebrew idea of hesed and find its meaning. Perhaps we associate a word like mercy with ideas such as compassion. More than simply feeling sorry for another person, mercy is to act upon that pity. Our deacons here maintain a benevolence fund for helping people in a time of need. It is an act of mercy to provide assistance when nothing can be done to earn it or deserve it. Similarly it is an act of mercy to forgive a wrong that has been done when nothing can be offered to make it right.
Les Miserables | Valjean and the bishop
I love the way that Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables portrays mercy. The main character, Jean Valjean serves a prison sentence for stealing some bread for his starving family. When released on parol, Jean discovers that everyone in society still treats him as a criminal because of his felony record. Jean thinks that his only way to survive is to be the criminal that everyone assumes him to still be. And so, on a night when the local town church bishop offers Jean a meal and a room, Jean sneaks out in the night taking with him some of the valuable silver ornaments in the church. Jean is caught and brought back to the bishop. But it is in that moment the Bishop shows mercy and forgives Jean for becoming the criminal that everyone assumes him to be. The bishop lets Jean keep the silver he has taken, and in fact gives him even more silver as a gift.
The way Hugo writes the story, it is this act of mercy which changes Jean’s heart. He uses the vast wealth of this silver to travel to another town in France and become a business owner. Through the course of Jean’s life he encounters several opportunities to make choices to show acts of mercy to others who are in need. The mercy that was extended to Jean by the church bishop becomes a pattern of mercy which Jean carries forward in his own actions. Jean should have gone back to prison for stealing the bishop’s silver. But in an act of mercy, Jean received forgiveness instead of what he deserved for his actions.
we walk carefully and wisely with God when we seek opportunities to show mercy to other people | we do what God requires of us when we extend forgiveness to others for their faults and failures
in my world right now who needs to be shown mercy?
We walk carefully and wisely with God when we seek opportunities to show mercy to other people. We do what God requires of us when we extend forgiveness to others for their faults and failures. Who is it in your world right now who needs to be shown mercy? Is there any person or perhaps group of people against whom you are holding some kind of grudge or grievance for wrong that has been done or failure that has taken place? It is in God’s hesed—his steadfast covenantal love—that God does not hold grudges or act upon grievances. God chooses to act in mercy instead.
Hebrew mishpot “act justly” = justice, law, command, judge, judgement
But mercy has a very balanced counterpart; and that is justice. In Micah 6 it comes from the Hebrew word mishpot which can mean either justice, law, or judge. Justice is the means by which whatever is wrong in this world is made right again. That’s the whole purpose of our courts. The system of justice we have is designed so that those who have been harmed by the wrongs of others may seek to have those wrongs made right—to seek justice.
God’s maintains mishpot with his people by acts of justice
we are rightly disturbed when we see an unfair world which allows some people to get away with doing wrong while others suffer because of it
It is no surprise that our God is a God of justice. We declare that God is perfectly righteous; everything God does is right, and in God there is no wrong. When wrong is done, our God of perfect righteousness cannot overlook the wrong without a demand for it to be made right. In the courtroom scene we see here in Micah 6 God is leveling charges of injustice against his people in Israel. You and I at times catch glimpses of a hunger for justice. Whenever we see examples of those who are strong and powerful in this world take advantage of that position by oppressing the poor and the needy, there is something inside of us that aches for justice to be done. We are rightly disturbed when we see an unfair world which allows some people to get away with doing wrong while others suffer because of it.
Les Miserables | Valjean and Inspector Jevert
In Hugo’s novel Les Miserables the character of Inspector Jevert embodies an unflinching insistence upon justice. It is Inspector Jevert who hunts down the fugitive Jean Valjean after Jean breaks his parole and takes off with all the wealth given to him by the church bishop. It is Inspector Jevert who insists that the law must be kept and followed no matter what so that those who commit crimes are brought to account for their actions. And even as Jean is being tracked down by the inspector over the years, Jean himself displays actions of justice. He takes an orphan child who is being neglected and abused into his own care. He joins a group of French revolutionaries in their opposition to the oppression being caused by the wealthy and elite French bourgeoisie class.
in my world right now who is being denied justice?
Who is it in your world right now who is being denied justice? Who are the people living under oppression because others are being allowed to take advantage of a position of power or wealth or privilege? Who is it you see suffering in a cycle of poverty or abuse because no one seems to be coming along side and standing up for them to advocate for justice to be done?
both justice and mercy must go hand-in-hand together — we cannot have one without the other
I find the story of Les Miserables to be a fascinating intersection of both justice and mercy. With Inspector Jevert we see an example of all justice without any mercy. In the bishop we see an example of all mercy without any justice. And the entire novel seems to be Jean Valjean wrestling with the tension and balance between these two virtues of justice and mercy. Jean learns by the end of his life that both justice and mercy must go hand-in-hand together; that we cannot have one without the other.
if all we ever did was boundless and limitless mercy without any justice at all, then there is no check upon those who abuse the law and take advantage of others
if all we ever did was boundless and limitless justice without any mercy at all, then there is no forgiveness and no second chance for those who have made mistakes or experienced failures
If all we ever did was boundless and limitless mercy without any justice at all, then there is no check upon those who abuse the law and take advantage of others. If all we ever did was boundless and limitless justice without any mercy at all, then there is no forgiveness and no second chance for those who have made mistakes or experienced failures. I love that our faith practices booklet puts together in one faith practice the expression of justice and mercy. And that is most certainly intentional because the prophet Micah also places both justice and mercy together as the final verdict of God’s courtroom trial.
God perfectly embodies and demonstrates a balance of both justice and mercy
Micah does not present this as new information. He says in verse 8 God has already shown you what is good. Not that God has already told you, but that God has already shown you. It is God who perfectly embodies and demonstrates this perfect balance of both justice and mercy. If it were not for the justice of God, sin would run unchecked and unaccounted for in our broken world. But because God is just, the wrongs of sin must be made right. If it were not for the mercy of God, our brokenness and failures would leave us without the forgiving grace of God. But because God is merciful, Jesus takes the guilt of our sin to the cross so that we may be forgiven.
expressions of justice and mercy that are held together embody and display what the love and grace of God looks like in this world
we grow to become better disciples of Jesus when our hearts learn to act in the same patterns of justice and mercy which God has shown to us
Expressions of justice and mercy that are held together embody and display what the love and grace of God looks like in this world. You and I grow to become better disciples of Jesus when our hearts learn to act in the same patterns of justice and mercy which God has shown to us.