How can God both do justice for the widow and show mercy to the tax collector?
This is a tension we find in Luke 18. When God claims to be better than the Unjust Judge we cheer. When he promises to exalt the humble and sinful, we breathe a sigh of relief. When he does both, we scratch our heads in confusion.
A just God would have to punish the tax collector, right?
Those of us familiar with the gospel of Jesus know that Jesus absorbs the punishment for all of God's people when he dies on the cross. But, even then, is that "justice"?
A "just" judge does as much as possible to only punish the guilty. A "just" judge doesn't punish the victim or the victim's family or any innocent. As least, not in the sense the word "just" is normally used.
And so I wonder if there isn't another way of thinking about justice. What happens if we make this the starting place for our run around the analogy circle?
Justice, in Luke 18, has more to do with God's posture toward his people. Justice allows for favoritism and is not fair, but the favoritism has more to do with mercy than advantage. Justice is concerned with setting things in order, putting people where they belong, restoration.
And justice has meant this, in some cultures. "Shalom" for the people of Israel meant peace and harmony and, yes, justice. "Dikaiosyne" for Plato and the Greeks had a lot to do with social contribution and righteousness and order and, yes again, justice. Why does it have to mean "everyone gets what they deserve" to us?
American society has been constructed according to a framework of intrinsic rights and (to some degree) civic responsibility. Fairness in getting and giving is the ideal (if not the reality). So much good has come as we in the US have leaned into this framework, particularly for the poor and women and ethnic minorities. But even this framework has limits.
In God the Just, justice and mercy abide together. If our conceptions of justice don't have room for mercy, perhaps we have yet to discover what it means that God is just.
What do you think? How do justice and mercy go together?
This post is one of several reflecting on Luke 18, which the InterVarsity Florida Divisional Staff Team studied during one of our days together this Fall.