In the Old Testament, it is written:
“…[An] eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus 21: 24 – 25)
But, Jesus said;
“To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.” (Luke 6: 29)
Did Jesus—who is God—change His mind with respect to justice? Does God now want forgiveness to eliminate justice? Moreover, how does mercy—the manifestation of God’s love— play into this situation?
When we study these scriptural verses in context, we find that forgiveness does not eliminate the debt due justice. The setting of the amount of debt is mitigated by temperance, and mercy either reduces or eliminates the debt owed. Forgiveness is the cognitive decision to not fight evil with evil. In short, we do not retaliate with vengeance, but we do not give up our right to justice.
Forgiveness and mercy are not independent nor are they mutually exclusive. God evidenced His perfect and infinite justice and mercy by the crucifixion of Jesus. Moreover, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution…justice without mercy is cruelty” (ST, I-II, q. 59, a. 1 ad 3.). Clearly, there is a relationship between justice and mercy.
Exodus 21: 24 – 25 is not meant to encourage and approve retaliation when wronged but to limit the debt due under justice. In other words, these verses signify, “let the punishment fit the crime.” The debt due must not be exaggerated. For example, we don’t impose the death penalty for a simple parking violation. Moreover, we don’t ground someone from TV for a week for killing another person.
This situation may leave us a bit perplexed because Jesus said, “Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6: 37) However, Jesus also said,
“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Matt 18: 15 – 17)
From these verses from the Gospel of Matthew it is clear that Jesus does expect us to make a judgement that a wrong has occurred.
The way to reconcile Luke 6: 37 and Matt 18: 15 – 17 is to recognize that an individual act can be judged as sinful, yet we cannot condemn the person that committed the sinful act. I can say—for example—that abortion is a sinful act, yet I cannot condemn the person that commits the act. This is the case because I do not know all of the underlying events and circumstances that drove this person to the abortion act, only God does. With this understanding we can see that the limiting the debt due justice referenced in Exodus 21: 24 – 25 applies because justice is associated with an act of a person, but not the person themselves.
The best way to understand all that has been discussed is to walk through an example from modern life. Let’s assume that a teenage boy, while driving unsafely, hit the rear bumper of my truck and the bumper is now bent. An estimate from the body shop states that the repair to my bumper is $1,200.
Under this scenario, I forgive the teenage driver for hitting my truck bumper which means I do not want to take out any revenge upon him. However, I still want the bumper of my truck fixed and the cost is $1,200. The $1,200 represents the debt due me under justice. The teenager—who doesn’t have auto insurance—says that he has $800 that he is willing to give me to pay for the repair, and he asks me if I would settle for that amount. If I accept the $800, then I have shown mercy which is represented by the $400 that the teenager did not pay. While I accept this offer, I do not condemn the teenager as a person. However, I may condemn the act of the teenager driving unsafely.
The CCC 1807 defines Justice as,
Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the "virtue of religion." Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.
In essence, justice is the act to either make a person whole (i.e., restore a person’s prior state to what it was before the negative event occurred) or to implement discipline out of love, not anger. The origin of justice is in the will—as informed by the intellect—and is not an emotion.
My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, you are not sons but bastards. (Hebrews 12: 5 – 8)
Justice can go “hand-in-hand” with the laws and commandments of God. Just as St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle taught that the purpose of the law is to teach virtue; justice—which is a subset of the law—is also meant to teach virtue.
While the essence of God is truth, love and mercy, God demands His justice as seen with King David’s infidelity with Bathsheba that resulted in a child.
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan answered David: “For his part, the LORD has removed your sin. You shall not die, but since you have utterly spurned the LORD by this deed, the child born to you will surely die.” (2 Samuel 12: 13 -14)
God forgave David, but his child still died. God gave forgiveness; however, the debt due God under justice was still paid. David was reproved by God because David is a son of God, a man loved by God. To deny that God demands justice is to deny the value to mankind of Jesus’ crucifixion.
From a Biblical perspective, we can see this is how God forgives, demands justice and offers mercy. In the Old Testament, we read about the same cycle concerning the Israelites repeatedly. First, they are in good relationship with God; then they sin against God; God imposes a judgment on the Israelites (i.e., sets the debt due under justice); the Israelites ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy; God extends His mercy and the Israelites are back in good relationship with God. If we see ourselves as a type of the Israelites, then isn’t this the same cycle we go through with respect to the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Of course it is! With regards to this sacrament, Jesus’ mercy is extended through the Priest who is acting in Persona Christi (i.e., in the person of Christ). In fact, the CCC states,
1449 The formula of absolution used in the Latin Church expresses the essential elements of this sacrament: the Father of mercies is the source of all forgiveness. He effects the reconciliation of sinners through the Passover of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, through the prayer and ministry of the Church:
God, the Father of mercies,
through the death and the resurrection of his Son
has reconciled the world to himself
and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
through the ministry of the Church
may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Absolution means a formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment. In other words, through the Priest, Jesus extends His mercy which fully satisfies of debt owed from Justice that is due to God because Jesus hung on a cross for all of our sins. It is important to realize that going to confession does not absolve us of sins we have committed against each other. The sin against another, left unresolved, results in temporal punishment. Please see my article entitled, “Purgatory? Really!” on the Catholic365.com website for more information.
Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6: 36) Jesus also said, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5: 48) May, God give us the graces we need to be perfect and forgive others and extend mercy as He does.