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Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent: The Unity of Justice and Mercy, of Judgment and Salvation, in Jesus.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Isaiah 49:8-15; Ps 145:8-9, 13-14, 17-18; Jn 5:17-30.

A lot of ideas are combined in today’s gospel: ideas about life, resurrection, the relationship of the Father and the Son, but most strikingly they are all woven into the theme of judgement. How are we to make sense of it all? Further, there is the challenge, perhaps the puzzle, of how we are to relate it to the first reading from Isaiah which seems to be about mercy and consolation. Are the judgement of God and the mercy of God at odds with each other? It is also noteworthy that in today’s liturgy it is the Old Testament reading that stresses God in a relationship of mercy to us, while the New Testament one stresses the role of God as judge.

I think it may be helpful for us to start by taking seriously just how central is the Justice of God to the Bible, and how integral to the faith perspective of the Jews and Christians was the conviction that God is not only just but is the judge of all humanity and history.

Only God is the real judge, who judges all with fairness. Thus when Jesus talks of being a judge and receiving the role of judge from God (the Father) he is claiming a divine role (Jn 5:21-22). He filled out this claim, making clear he draws life from the Father, but equally has life in himself and is a person acting with divine authority if one he has received (eternally). It is this that gives him his credentials to be the judge of humanity. Even if the Jews of his day saw only a man, he was, and is, in reality the Word-made-flesh. Since he lived in complete obedience to the Father, he models perfect justice and can judge, in his humanity, with perfect justice and integrity (5:30).

In Biblical usage, judgement has various linked connotations but different verbal usages. It means judgement as assessment; but also (in the light of this) judgement as condemnation and punishment. If the former is the focus, all people are judged fairly and rewarded or punished; if the latter is the focus, those not condemned, can be said not to have been judged. No one should take the prospect of God’s judgment lightly. At one level all have fallen short of what God wants and so we all stand condemned. However, on occasions the just or oppressed look to God humbly to judge and find in their favour. Thus at another level judgement is linked with the bringing of salvation as well as condemnation. Biblical texts like our gospel today work subtly with a number of these usages.

God is the author of life and living rightly leads to a share in life, especially eternal life, while living badly and rejecting God leads to death. Judgement, which draws out the consequences of our free acts for good or evil, for or against God, thus offers the reward of life or the punishment of death. It is as stark as that. Given our sinfulness our prospects are bleak – or they would be if the mercy of God did not enter in.

For the Jews, mercy is a relationship of compassionate loyalty. It is this that lies behind the great promises and assurance in the passage from Isaiah. This merciful relationship is at the heart of the covenant, and it is a stronger relationship even than that of a mother and child (Isa 49:14-15). But it does not remove the requirement for justice or the fact of judgement by God. Rather God will pour out his grace upon us, forgiving us and also renewing us and strengthening us so that we produce works that please God, works done in grace that God will judge to be worthy of reward. It is this transforming grace that, with our co-operation, is the joy and consolation that Isaiah writes about so eloquently. God’s mercy, with our co-operation, makes us just, it does not put aside justice. It means our lives will spring forth with just works (cf Isa 49:10) and in this grace we will walk in paths of uprightness (Isa 49:11-12), able to stand with and before God. If God’s justice stresses our accountability to God, then God’s mercy stresses the undeserved divine help given to us as creatures. Both features, not one or the other, are irreducibly part of God’s relationship with us.

All this, I suggest, is behind today’s passage from John. Jesus, sent by the Father, is the divine judge but he is God who brings us life and mercy too. Jesus lived the perfectly just life as a human, a standard by which we all stand condemned. But the incarnation also establishes a bond of mercy between God and humanity. As well as forgiveness, it means that the very life of God, in the Spirit of God, is poured into us. Through this we too, in and through God, can live justly. We receive the mercy of God so as to fulfil the requirements of God’s justice and receive its reward.

To properly honour Jesus (Jn 5:23), to listen and to believe in Jesus (Jn 5:24) is to accept this full salvation which Jesus brings, in which mercy and justice work together. Through the judgement of Jesus upon us now, received by accepting the truth of his gospel, we can receive his life now (Jn 5:24) and eternally (Jn 5:21 & 25). In this way we need not be condemned, now or eternally, due to the sin and evil which results from our attempts to live according to our own agenda, ignoring God’s justice, and in our own strength, ignoring God’s merciful help (Jn 5:29). There is no third option in the final analysis.

Choose life, then, not death! Accept mercy and so live justly! Choose Jesus now!

Andrew Brookes OP


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