Justice with Mercy
Sister Joyce Lehman • President, Sisters of the Precious Blood
“Mercy binds up the wounds that justice inflicts” is one of the most striking statements about mercy that I’ve come across in the reading I’ve done during this Jubilee Year. In looking for the source, I came across several references to similar statements from Pope Francis. It is no secret that mercy is a consistent theme in the words of our Holy Father who explores the virtue from many different angles and for many different purposes.
The reason these words strike me so forcefully is that they respond to the conundrum often encountered by people who want either to impose justice with no regard to the effects on the individuals or their rehabilitation, or disregard justice and its consequences in order to continue “helping” someone to the point of codependency. While pondering this it seemed that parents are often models of this balance of mercy of justice as they teach their children. A child cautioned “not to put your hand on the stove when it is hot,” “pull the dog’s tail,” or “walk barefoot on the driveway,” seems to want to do it anyway. Then the inevitable happens and a crying child comes to mother or father who patches up the burn, or the nip or the cut, all the while consoling and drying the child’s tears. No good parent would look at a hurt child and say, “Told you so!” and walk away.
St. Thomas Aquinas comments that “mercy does not abolish justice, but fulfills it and exceeds it … justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of disintegration; therefore, both must be bound together.” St. John Paul II reminds us that mercy is capable of restoring our humanity to ourselves and is in “a certain sense … the most perfect incarnation of justice.”
The Scriptures are very clear that sin exists, that the consequences of sin exist, and that we human beings are in need of forgiveness. Scriptures are also very clear that God is a merciful God and that Jesus shed his blood to the last drop for the forgiveness of our sins and our redemption. To use an analogy (and remember, analogies always limp or are inadequate when pushed too far), sinning might be compared to having a broken leg because we ignored a “Don’t Walk” sign and were hit by a car. Justice would be the pain and suffering (consequences) caused by our noncompliance. Mercy would be the actions of those who set and bandage the leg, care for us and help rehabilitate us so we are able to walk again. Because someone was merciful does not take away the pain or the subsequent work we must do to walk again, but in light of the merciful actions we hopefully learned our lesson.
In order to be “merciful like the Father,” this Jubilee Year’s theme, we must acknowledge that we have too often touched the “hot stove.” We need healing and forgiveness for not listening. We need mercy to bind up our wounds so we can begin anew, knowing the consequences. Unless we recognize that we need and have received mercy, and know its texture, its scent, its touch, we may be clueless about how to extend it to others. There is no dearth of the need for mercy in our world and in our lives. We pray that we have been so touched by the Jubilee Year of Mercy that we find opportunities to extend mercy, the very love of God, wherever we find the consequences of justice that leave people ready for change.