Q: I have a question regarding the relationship between God’s mercy and justice. While I am excited that we are celebrating a Jubilee of Mercy, I have a concern. Aren’t we forgetting about or diminishing the importance of justice in God’s relationship with us?
A: Thank you for your question — it’s an important one! As Christians, a clear understanding of the relationship between justice and mercy in God’s relationship with us is absolutely at the center of how we understand our heavenly Father as well as our relationship with him.
In the secular world around us, justice or “giving someone their due” is part of the air we breathe. I remember being in a ferry line a few years ago on Thanksgiving Day. The wait times were quite lengthy and I remember, after waiting in line for over an hour, seeing someone cut in line right before the ticket booth, thus skipping the line altogether. “No fair!” I thought. “That’s not just!” Justice in that case would mean that the person refund their ticket and get in line just like everyone else; fair is fair!
When we turn to our understanding of God, we have to set this sort of thinking aside. While God is just, his justice is completely submerged within his mercy. In the Old Testament, while there are many images of God, the central and most important one is mercy. In Hebrew, the word used to describe God is hesed: loving kindness. In the Hebrew Scriptures, God is someone who continually reaches out to his people when they fall away from relationship with him through their sins and infidelities.
While justice would demand punishment for their transgressions (giving the people their due), God instead continually seeks them out because he is hesed, loving kindness itself. Pope Francis recently reflected on this relationship between God’s mercy and justice. He said that the heart of God “goes beyond our little concept of justice to open us to the limitless horizons of his mercy. His is the heart of a Father who does not treat us according to our sins nor repay us according to our faults.”
In God, justice and mercy are eternally present, but mercy always trumps justice because of who and what God is: hesed. God always desires our repentance and conversion so we can receive his mercy.
Nowhere else in Scripture do we get a more beautiful understanding of the relationship between God’s mercy and justice than in the parable of the prodigal son. (see Luke 15:11-32) In that parable, the younger son squandered all of the inheritance that he received from his father. When he returned to his father’s house completely destitute, the father could have justly punished his son or put him to work to earn back his inheritance. Instead, he mercifully forgave him and threw a lavish party to celebrate his return.
While the son could have chosen to remain obstinate and suffer the consequences of his sin, he instead chose the path of conversion and reconciliation. This is what the father desired for his son above all else.
This is exactly what our heavenly Father desires for us as well. While we, like the prodigal son, could freely choose to be separated from God and justly suffer the consequences of our sins, we can make the choice to return, and justice becomes submerged within mercy, hesed.
Focusing on mercy during this Jubilee of Mercy doesn’t negate God’s justice in any way, but rather reminds us of who God is for us and what is at the heart of our relationship with him.