An act of mercy is more often than not an act of injustice. Ever seen that episode of Different Strokes when Arnold was arrested for shoplifting? An older boy convinced him that in order to be in his club he would need to steal something. He stole a comic book thinking it was not that big of a deal, but it turns out that it was a very expensive collectors item. When he went to court, Arnold was shown mercy by the judge and by the shop owner, and the charges were dropped. I always remember thinking what the judge did was good and right in some way. But was it?
When any judge extends mercy to a person, is not the judge in fact creating injustice on some level? And yet, isn’t extending mercy supposed to be a good thing? Unfortunately, mercy is a very tricky thing, for in our world the natural interconnectedness of human beings means there are consequences, even when we are trying to be kind. Go easy on crime, and law-abiding people suffer with the consequences of injustice.
Amazingly, God manages to be both merciful and just. He never has to sacrifice justice in order to be merciful. Perhaps you will recall Christ’s parable of the laborers? Many of the laborers came much later in the day, but they were paid the same as the ones who had been there longer. The seems like an unjust act. Except for the fact that the money and right for how it was shared belonged solely to the land owner.
“But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15)
There was no basis for a claim of injustice by the other laborers. Christ was sharing the truth that in God’s economy, since we are owed nothing by rights, He has the right to show mercy and grace to whom he wishes. Since He is the owner not of just the land but of all things, his authority is all encompassing.
He demonstrates this also in a singular act of perfect wisdom and mystery — the death of Christ on the cross. When our Lord and Savior allowed himself to suffer shame and death, he took the weight of all the sins of the world upon him, essentially punishing each sin in fullness. The cross means that all of God’s acts of mercy have the unassailable quality of never diminishing justice — they have already been paid for. The crucifixion was the extraordinary act of mercy that was also perfectly just.
Since this is true, when God gives us the task and ministry of reconciliation we are not powerless to do so. We have a deep well of grace at our disposal. With it, we can struggle through the real difficulty of what it means to show mercy and what it means to be just. For sometimes it is not simple at all, even if the cross clarifies it for sin and for salvation. Sometimes ignoring justice creates collateral and negative effects. Sometimes, mercy does more harm. So we can and should lean upon the wisdom of God in the cross to extend mercy as He did, mindful of what it took to create perfect justice. But most of all, be thankful and assured that God not only extends mercy upon mercy towards us but also brings us healing and peace where we have suffered injustice.