Justice and mercy can seem like opposing ideas. Justice requires the recompense for wrongs done, the wrongdoer to “pay the price” or make restitution in some way. It is most often associated with punishment for a crime done. It is meted out, or done to, the offender.
Mercy on the other hand, is almost the antithesis of justice. It is the withholding of the deserved punishment for a crime or offense. Mercy is almost the removal of the need for justice, that there no need to address the wrong that has been committed.
Paradoxically, we all want mercy for ourselves and to see justice in the world. But what if each of those actually starts with us? What if justice begins well before the criminal system? What if mercy is more than just withholding punishment? By understanding those ideas from God’s view, we begin to see that justice has failed if it relies on the courts, and mercy is thin if it requires a wrong to be exercised.
Since the early days of the Roman empire, artistic renderings of the goddess Lustitia (Latin for justice) have graced the public square. Known also as Lady Justice, she’s depicted holding a balance scale in one hand and a sword in the other. Caesar Augustus (63 bc–ad 14) gave her to his empire to symbolize the honor, moral spirit, and authority of rule by law.
A providential convergence, however, infused the emperor’s legacy with an unexpected significance. He would be remembered far more for his role in the birth of Jesus than for his patronage of Lady Justice. The Son that Augustus unwittingly brought to Bethlehem would bring fullness of meaning to the kind of justice that does right by those who do wrong.
In our own day theologian and philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff has written and spoken at length about a kind of justice that goes beyond the prosecution of wrongs. Surveying the literature on the subject, he noticed that justice has come to be understood primarily in terms of the consequence and punishment for wrongs done, rather than as a first response to human need. The result, he observed, is that we tend to consider love and justice as necessary opposites—like defense and prosecution in a court of law. Love defends. Justice accuses.
Understanding how inclined we are to see justice in such a light, Wolterstorff calls attention to what he overlooked until fairly late in life. When Jesus told us that love for God and neighbor is the greatest of laws, he was doing more than giving us quotes without a context. Wolterstorff noticed that when Moses said to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18), he was summing up the kind of everyday care and concern that does justice to all members of a community. In context Moses was saying things like:
- Respect those who brought you into the world and gave you life (19:1–8)
- Think of the poor and foreigner when making a profit from your work (19:9)
- Don’t cheat, deceive, or steal from those who depend on you to be honest (19:11–13)
- Don’t denigrate or add to the pain of those already disadvantaged. Keep in mind that the Lord is watching all who belong to him, even those who appear to have been shortchanged by the King of heaven (19:14)
- Do what it takes to value another person’s life in a way that not only does justice to their rights, but also to the Lord himself (19:2–4, 10–18).
Wolterstorff notes that such examples of justice can be summed up in short, love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, God taught his people to see love in justice and justice in love.
By treating others as we want to be treated, we can avoid the pain that ends up in the conflict of court, blood feuds, or war.
Yet this is also a kind of justice that, too often, was glaringly absent in the story of God’s people. Not until Jesus does the story of the Bible offer an unflawed example of One who personifies what it means to do justice to one another in love.
For Jesus, the price of caring about others was the mark of the Kingdom of God. Early in his three years of public life, all eyes were on him as took his place before his local synagogue. At that time, he claimed to have come in fulfillment of the words of Isaiah to bring help and rescue to the oppressed. Yet when he reminded them from their own Scriptures that God has a special care for those outside of Israel, the crowd turned into a mob that chased him out of town with thoughts of killing him.
Jesus accomplished all this in the course of doing right by the heart of his Father. And he did it while simultaneously seeking to do justice to the desperate needs of vulnerable people.
But the city fathers and religious teachers of the Law didn’t buy it. Instead of dancing in the streets when they saw Jesus bringing help and advocating for those suffering oppression, they perceived Jesus to be a threat to the faith and wellbeing of the nation. Instead of praising God for sending relief to the blind, the leper, the poor, and even those mourning lost loved ones, legal experts with a reputation for defending the Law of Moses resented, feared, hated, and—in the end—crucified him.
What if Lady Justice had been a real person in the crowd of those who saw Jesus with her own eyes? Would it have ended differently if Jesus’s countrymen and Jerusalem’s city fathers had known the heart of their God and the spirit of the laws entrusted to them? Would she have loved him? Imagine her listening to Jesus in the synagogue or in one of the crowds that saw him healing the weak and siding with the oppressed. Picture him using his Sermon on the Mount to describe what it means to care not only for family and friends but also enemies. Imagine what she might have thought standing with the women friends of Jesus at the foot of his cross. Would she join them in sobbing the loss of a man who seemed to understand her own heart for the weak, the hurting, and those who needed an advocate?
If the honored Lady had been more than an idea, would she have understood why Jesus didn’t resist the lies of his accusers, the anger of the mob, and the cruelty of his crucifixion? Would she have understood that this is what it took for him to do justice to our deepest needs—and to do right by the enemy who in the Garden of Eden had planted seeds of doubt about the goodness of our God? (genesis 3:15).
In concept, the image of Lady Justice is good and beautiful symbolism. But ideal as she is, she’s just an idea. Like all of the good laws and thoughts written by the finger of God into the stone tablets of Moses, she can’t help those who have broken the law or assure that courts duty-bound to uphold the law be faithful to their own calling.
By contrast, Jesus personifies the kind of justice that gives fullness of meaning to the truth, impartiality, and moral authority that the art of a noble statue symbolizes. While mirroring the heart of his Father, he showed us what it means to show love by justice, and justice by love. Instead of leaving us with the impression that we do right by wrongdoers only by punishing them, he showed us his desire to turn oppressors into examples and advocates. By showing the heart and spirit of the law he demonstrated that restorative justice is far more than punishment. Justice that does right by everyone works to restore relationships with a compassionate God. He longs to show mercy and forgiveness, while using wise and loving consequences when needed for the good of all (exodus 34:5–7).