Thursday, 21 January 2021

Justice and mercy

Mercy triumphs over judgment.—James 2:13

In the Law we see the principle of the talion. Sins against men are addressed by doing to the sinner what he did to another. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. This principle applied to the body. A few maiming or capital punishments could be greater against a criminal in certain circumstances (eg. sexual crimes). But permanent destruction of a man or a part of his body was limited to what he had done to others. An example is in King Adonibezek who had cut off the thumbs and great toes of kings and the same was done unto him (Jug 1:7). He saw this as a punishment from God because of what he had done.

The punishment could exceed this in some circumstances, especially property crimes: A thief pays back more than he stole to act as a deterrent. Further, a man could be flogged for a crime because this did not cause permanent physical destruction of an organ.

The talion acted also limited punishments; it prohibited judges from sentencing excessive punishments.

Jesus speaks against the talion in his Sermon on the Mount. It is worth noting that he is teaching not against what is written, but what the people had be taught. When Jesus refutes his opponents he frequently appeals to Scripture saying, "It is written." The rebuke is in not believing Scripture. If his opponents claim to believe Scripture Jesus shows them how they err in their interpretation. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus refutes not what is written but what they have been taught. Jesus prefaces his teaching by denying that he is abolishing the Law,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:17-19)
And then he says,
You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ (Mat 5:21)
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ (Mat 5:27)
It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ (Mat 5:31)
Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ (Mat 5:33)
These are what they have been taught by the scribes. When Jesus addresses these teachings, which are based in the Torah, Jesus explains what they mean. He explains that murder originates in the heart and that lesser sins  such as hatred also violate the law. He explains that adultery can be in the heart. He corrects the teaching they have received on divorce. But consider this teaching,
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ (Mat 5:43)
Hating your enemies is not an Old Testament quote. He tells them to love their enemies.

When it comes to the talion Jesus says,
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Mat 5:38-42)
Jesus is not abolishing the Law as he has already said, but he is commenting about how they are applying the Law. None of the examples Jesus gives involves actually losing an eye, or a tooth, or one's life. Jesus is speaking against a spirit of retaliation. The talion was given to administer judgment and limit sentences, it was not given to justify our internal desire for revenge. This is what the Pharisees got wrong and why Jesus spoke so sternly to them in other situations. A spirit of revenge works against mercy. It subverts all that God wants to do. It is antagonistic to God's purposes. Punishment is not wrong, and the principle of the talion is not wrong, but if we let revenge take priority in our hearts we oppose what God is doing.

When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God pronounced judgment against them. The judgment was severe: they became mortal, they were estranged from God, they had difficulty with children, difficulty between each other, difficulty in their ability to get enough food. And such a judgment was necessary, they now knew good and evil and the depths of depravity the human race was now capable meant that they had to be restrained.

Even so, look at the promise when God curses the serpent.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15)
The protevangelium contains the promise of deliverance. Even in the curse God is planning to redeem the problem. God does not intend for men to be alienated from him.

Jesus teaches the same thing.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar or under a basket, but on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light. (Luk 11:33-36)
When our eye is healthy, or generous, we view things rightly. We need to pay careful attention that we have healthy eyes. Luke writes this within the context of people saying Jesus operates by the power of Beelzebub. He warns them against having an unclean spirit, and he rebukes them for their unbelief. Then following this is a condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees.

Some have argued that Jesus opposes the religious but defends sinners by virtue of his kindness towards tax-collectors and prostitutes but frequent condemnation of the religious men of the day. This misreads what Jesus does and is doing. Jesus befriended sinners because they were lost. The sick need a physician. Yet the sinners we encounter in these verses are repentant sinners. Jesus offers mercy to those who repent. Jesus had a generous eye, one that defeats his enemies by making them his friends. It is this what the Pharisees get so wrong. They load up burdens on men's backs but do not help lift a finger (Mat 23:4).

It is not that mercy is right and justice is wrong, it is that people do not care for mercy which is a higher virtue. Love is above all.

And it is not that being a sinner gets one right with Jesus, it is repentance that matters. Jesus called Herod a fox (Luk 13:32), he warned the paralytic to stop sinning else something worse than paralysis would happen (Joh 5:14). And Jesus was gracious towards many righteous who were not sinners, including some who were Pharisees.

God is about redemption. He is about getting people into his kingdom. The pathway is faith demonstrated by repentance. The harsh words of Jesus against the Pharisees was because they opposed God's purposes which was to enable sinful men and women to repent and be accepted into the kingdom of Heaven. It matters not whether you consider yourself religious or not, what matters is that you have a heart inclined towards mercy.

But this is not a condemnation of justice. Justice remains. It is only in the context of justice that we can understand mercy. The men who refuse to call sin for what it is have neither justice nor mercy. They refuse to see that sin is an affront to God. They offer acceptance without repentance which is not mercy because it leaves people in their sin and outside God's family. They condemn religion while justifying the rebellious. Yet it is the very nature of justice which should make us so cautious.

Judgment will come. Heaven cries out,
her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Pay her back as she herself has paid back others,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed. (Rev 18:5-6)
It is the certainty of judgment which men deserve which makes mercy so imperative. Jesus is against men who would refuse the repentant; such an attitude demonstrates that they themselves have not received mercy, that they remain outside the kingdom.
Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.” (Mat 21:31).

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