Justice Law and Mercy
"He has showed you, O man, 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." (Micah 6:8)
Many people seem to be of the belief that justice means to punish those who break the law and thus define justice simply as upholding the law. Additionally, they see justice as impartiality, fairness and equal distribution of rights. Both of those ideas of justice are correct, but incomplete. They are merely descriptions of justice that leave much to be desired. To really understand justice, especially as it is used in the Bible, requires digging a little deeper.
The traditional definition of justice is as follows
"The virtue which consists in giving to each one what is his due; practical conformity to the laws and rectitude in the dealings of men with each other; honesty; integrity in commerce or mutual intercourse. Justice is distributive or commutative. Distributive justice belongs to the magistrates or rulers, and consists in distributing to every man that right or equity the laws and the principles of equity require; or in deciding controversies according to the law and to the principles of equity. Commutative justice consists in fair dealing in trade and mutual intercourse between man and man."
That definition is from Webster's 1828 dictionary and is the definition of justice that has been the standard for centuries. Note how Webster divides justice into two types, distributive and commutative, and how that expresses the idea that justice is both retribution and fairness. But I don't think the examples given here really express the distinction sufficiently.
Commutative justice describes a one-to-one relationship between people. When each person receives the rights due him and fulfils the obligations he has to the other, then there is justice between them. If one or the other fails in his obligations, then there is an injustice. Thus, the law provides a remedy by "commuting" or transferring from one to the other in order to restore a just relationship. This can be seen clearly if you think of a contract between two people. One person agrees to provide some service to the other and the second agrees to pay a sum of money in return. By entering into the covenant both bind themselves to the obligations of the agreement. When both parties have fulfilled their obligations, then a just relationship exists between them. If one party fulfills the obligation but the other does not, then there is an imbalance created. It is that state of imbalance that we call injustice. The remedy is to then take from the offending party to restore the balance. This is one meaning of the phrase "giving to each man his due."
The same principle applies to any wrongs done to another person. Each of us has certain rights and that implies that we each have an obligation to respect the rights of others. When those rights are violated an imbalance exists that must be corrected. From this comes the idea of punishment for wrongs. If the imbalance of wrongful acts continues to exist without remedy it becomes like a disease eating away at a society until it collapses. Thence comes the perpetual cry for justice.
Whereas commutative justice establishes one-to-one relationships, distributive justice insures that all are treated equally. For justice to truly exist, it must mean giving all men their due. Whenever one group in a society is not given equal justice, that group has no impulse to maintain the stability of the society. Since the society is not insuring justice for them, there is no real advantage to maintaining that society or in having any respect for its laws. Unfortunately, there has never been a human society that has upheld distributive justice. Always there are those who are given special consideration and others who are denied equal treatment. Because of this lack of complete justice, all human societies will contain internal conflicts and eventually collapse because of them.
The perpetual lack of complete justice, combined with the concept of justice as retribution and distribution leads to the common notion that what is needed is more laws and better law enforcement. It never works. As laws are piled on top of laws it is inevitable that those with their on peculiar desires will seek to manipulate the law in order to create what they perceive as a just society. However, due to the limited perspective and rather selfish, self-righteous, and hypocritical nature of the human race, the laws soon become corrupted and perverted and no longer lead to justice. Instead, they generally become the major source of injustice. At that point, upholding the law no longer leads to justice. This is the grave danger in equating justice with upholding the law. That concept only works when the law itself is just and men can fully abide by those laws. Once the law is perverted, or men fail in keeping the law, justice cannot be insured under law. With this understanding comes the knowledge that justice is the end and law is merely the means to that end. Law can never be seen as an end in and of itself.
"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices--mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law--justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Matthew 23:23)
The treatment of law as an end of itself is precisely the situation Jesus described with the scribes and Pharisees. They had a perverted understanding of law and their rigid enforcement of that law did not lead to justice, but instead to rank and widespread hypocrisy, compounded with the oppression of many in the society. When man seeks to impose a rigid enforcement of a corrupt view of law, injustice is the inevitable result. What God demands is justice and His concept of justice is beyond what most people think. To understand what Jesus called the weightier matters of justice requires a much broader understanding of law and justice.
tis> (Heb: tsedhaqah; Heb: tsedheq; Grk: dikaiosune): The original Hebrew and Greek words are the same as those rendered 'righteousness.' This is the common rendering, and in about half the cases where we have 'just' and 'justice' in the King James Version, the American Standard Revised Version has changed to 'righteous' and 'righteousness.' It must be constantly borne in mind that the two ideas are essentially the same. (ISBE)
As the ISBE points out, the words justice and righteousness in the English versions of the Bible express the same thing. Justice is righteousness and vice versa. Understanding this is the first step to understanding what God means when He says He requires justice. Justice, and thus righteousness, only exists when there is a right relationship between the parties of a covenant. In the most abstract terms, justice simply indicates a right relationship. To say that someone or something is just is to say there is a proper relationship to something else. It is a relationship where all rights are respected and all obligations are met. To say that man is unrighteous is to state than man is not in the proper relationship to God and not in a proper relationship with all other men. The proper relationship is bound up in a single word: agape-love.
Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:37-40)
Equally important to understand is that justice does not require retribution. All that is needed is that a right relationship be established and this can be accomplished in more than one manner. Think again of a contract between two people, or any situation, where one person has harmed another. If one person fails to meet the obligations of the covenant, the other party may seek restitution or retribution. By taking something from the offending party the balance required by justice is established. However, there is another way. If the person who has been harmed simply forgives the offence, then justice is established as well. Since the offence is discarded, no retribution is required. Instead, the two parties return to a right relationship as if the offence had never occurred. In other words, you can show mercy instead of require retribution.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)
But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13)
Under the law given to Moses, a penalty was paid by some form of sacrifice. A violation of the law is simply called sin. The penalty for any sin is death and thus a death must occur for the imbalance caused by the sin to be removed. This established the requirement that the blood of the sacrifice be poured out on the ground in death for the sin to be removed. It is a form of vicarious punishment in that the life of another provides the covering for the sin. For those who question why Jesus had to die on the cross, just look in the mirror. God could not be consistent in His word if He were to simply ignore man's sin. He will not violate any covenant He has established. That is the essence of why God is perfectly just and man is not.
This leaves open the question, however, of what does it mean that God desires mercy rather than punishment. There is a mistaken notion that God somehow desires punishment and wrath. This is a gross misunderstanding. God desires mercy, but He will always be just. He will give mercy only under the proper conditions that do not violate His own integrity. Most importantly He will not show mercy to those who do not themselves show mercy. Jesus taught this in many situations, but this one is the most often quoted.
"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matthew 5:38-39)
If we comprehend that justice can be obtained ether by retribution or by mercy, then the words of Jesus can be better understood. The requirement of "eye for eye" is justice obtained through retribution. To "turn the other cheek" is to reestablish justice by mercy. Mercy for ourselves is obviously better than retribution and if that is what we seek for ourselves then we must also seek it for everyone. As stated before, justice is both commutative and distributive. For God to give mercy to us while we seek retribution for others, would be a failure of distributive justice. But "God is no respecter of persons" and thus will insure impartiality to all.
To give mercy or forgiveness to another means that the person takes the harm done onto himself. Thus mercy is a form of unconditional love. As Jesus said, "No greater love has a man than this, that he lay down his life for another." No one can truly forgive unless that forgiveness is done out of love. Anything else is self-serving. To forgive and show mercy in order to somehow be declared better than another does not establish a just relationship. It is only when the wrong that was given is discarded out of love and a desire that the offender be lifted back to a proper relationship can we say there is mercy. That is what God provides for us and what He expects us to show to others.
The final part of the quote from Micah 6:8 and Jesus's statement in Matthew 9:13 gives us the clue of what it means to enter into a right relationship with God. We are to walk humbly with Him and to remain faithful in that walk. When we put aside pride, boasting, and disobedience then we become humble with God. When we give to Him the praise and worship His glory deserves, then we are giving to Him what is His due. In that condition, He will walk with us and do so as long as we remain faithful in these things. We must do justice to all, love and seek mercy rather than retribution and remain faithful in doing so.
Our greatest challenge is that on our own we lack the capacity to do these things. The fear and misunderstandings and self-serving attitudes that fill the mind prevent us from reaching the proper and right relationship to God and other men. Fortunately, when we set our heart and mind towards God rather than ourselves, He provides His spirit and the renewal of our heart that allows us to be faithful. He will provide the means if we simply trust Him. He will pour out His grace in exchange for our trust and obedience; we become just by faith. And by this means God will manifest through us His Kingdom of perfect justice on earth as it is in heaven.