The Scandalous Injustice of Grace

In 2008 “60 Minutes” interviewed the Boston button man John Martorano. The interview is unsettling. In a quiet, detached, matter-of-fact tone, Martorano describes the twenty confessed murders he committed during his years as an enforcer for the Winter Hill Gang. At the conclusion of the interview, Steve Kroft asks the question I wanted to hear: Do you regret what you did?

“In some cases, regret can take over a person’s life. I don’t get the sense that that’s the case with you.”

“Well, maybe that’s just not my temperament or my personality. Maybe it is, but you can’t see it. Or maybe I can’t express it the way you want it, but I have my regrets.”

“You seem cold. You killed 20 people and that’s all you have to say about it?”

“I wish it wasn’t that way. I mean, I wish there was none. You know, you can’t change the past. I’m trying to do the best I can with the future and explain it as best I can. I regret it all, I can’t change it.”

“You still a Catholic?”

“Sure.”

“I mean, you can burn in hell for killing one person.”

“I don’t believe that. At one point, maybe a couple years ago, I sent for a priest and gave him a confession. It was maybe 30 years since my last confession. But I went through the whole scenario with him, and went through my whole life with him, and confessed. And at the end of it, he says, ‘Well, what do you think I should give you for penance?’ I says, ‘Father, you can justifiably crucify me.’ He laughed and says, ‘Nope. Ten Hail Marys, ten Our Fathers, and don’t do it again.’ So I listened to him.”

This interview has been remarked upon throughout the blogosphere. Most people are dissatisfied with Martorano’s expression of contrition. He seems too cool, too detached. They do not believe he has truly repented and therefore do not believe that God has forgiven him. Many mock the penance assigned by the priest. Yet what struck me most was Martorano’s trust in the sacramental word of the priest: “I listened to him.” Martorano believes that God has forgiven him. He believes this because he believes the divine word of absolution that was spoken to him.

Yet our instinctive reaction is “this is not enough.” We want to see deeper sorrow, reparations, and a dramatic change in the man’s life before we will consider the possibility that God has forgiven him. It’s all too easy, all too unjust.

In his book That Man is You, Fr Louis Evely describes a scene from a play by Jean Anouilh:

The good are densely clustered at the gate of heaven, eager to march in, sure of their reserved seats, keyed up and bursting with impatience.

All at once, a rumor starts spreading: “It seems He’s going to forgive those others, too!”

For a minute, everybody’s dumbfounded. They look at one another in disbelief, gasping and sputtering, “After all the trouble I went through!” “If only I’d known this …” “I just cannot get over it!”

Exasperated, they work themselves into a fury and start cursing God; and at that very instant they’re damned. That was the final judgment.

What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. The last will be first and the first last (Matt 20:1-16).

We are scandalized by the injustice of grace. It’s quite one thing for God to forgive me, but I still want him to mete out justice to everyone else.

The seventh century ascetical master St Isaac the Syrian boldly challenged the portrayal of God as one who rewards the virtuous and punishes the wicked:

Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. “He is good,” He says, “to the evil and to the impious.” How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? “Friend, I do thee no wrong I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?” How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (Homily 60)

The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. “God is not One who requites evil,” declares St Isaac, “but who sets evil right.” Indeed, Isaac goes even so far as to assert that “mercy is opposed to justice.” Even when God punishes, he does so only for our good:

God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but in seeking to make whole his image. And he does not harbour wrath until such time as correction is no longer possible, for he does not seek vengeance for himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, but does not aim at retribution. … The man who chooses to consider God as avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being bereft of goodness. Far be it that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness!

The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice. But does not the Scripture speak of God’s anger and wrath against sin? These texts, says St Isaac, must be interpreted figuratively, not literally. God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never acts to harm his creatures. He never acts out of vengeance. In a tract long attributed to St Antony the Great, the anonymous author explains:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. (Texts on Saintly Life 150, in the Philokalia)

The rays of God’s love shine on the righteous and wicked equally. If we choose to close our eyes to his illumination, then the fault lies in ourselves, not in God.

Latin theologians are loath to speak of a conflict between divine love and divine justice; ultimately they cannot conflict. Yet as John Paul II acknowledges in his wonderful encyclical Dives in misericordia, justice must ultimately be interpreted and reinterpreted through love. Speaking of the revelation of God’s loving kindness in the Old Testament, the Holy Father writes:

In this way, mercy is in a certain sense contrasted with God’s justice, and in many cases is shown to be not only more powerful than that justice but also more profound. Even the Old Testament teaches that, although justice is an authentic virtue in man, and in God signifies transcendent perfection nevertheless love is “greater” than justice: greater in the sense that it is primary and fundamental. Love, so to speak, conditions justice and, in the final analysis, justice serves love. The primacy and superiority of love vis-a-vis justice—this is a mark of the whole of revelation—are revealed precisely through mercy. This seemed so obvious to the psalmists and prophets that the very term justice ended up by meaning the salvation accomplished by the Lord and His mercy. Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it, if we admit in the history of man—as the Old Testament precisely does—the presence of God, who already as Creator has linked Himself to His creature with a particular love. Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill-will towards the one to whom He once gave the gift of Himself: Nihil odisti eorum quae fecisti, “you hold nothing of what you have made in abhorrence.” These words indicate the profound basis of the relationship between justice and mercy in God, in His relations with man and the world. They tell us that we must seek the life-giving roots and intimate reasons for this relationship by going back to “the beginning,” in the very mystery of creation. They foreshadow in the context of the Old Covenant the full revelation of God, who is “love.”

Like St Isaac, John Paul looks to the parable of the prodigal son as a revelation of the mystery of divine love. Neither justice nor mercy are mentioned in the parable, yet the relationship between the two is stated exactly. “It becomes more evident,” John Paul writes, “that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice—precise and often too narrow.” Within the order of justice, the son deserved the loss of sonship. He deserved to be hired as one of his father’s servants and to begin the process of rebuilding the wealth he had squandered. But the father shows mercy, not justice. The graciousness of the father reveals his faithfulness to his love, which is the essence of his fatherhood:

Going on, one can therefore say that the love for the son the love that springs from the very essence of fatherhood, in a way obliges the father to be concerned about his son’s dignity. This concern is the measure of his love, the love of which Saint Paul was to write: “Love is patient and kind … love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful … but rejoices in the right … hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” Mercy—as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son—has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.

But it is in the Paschal Mystery that the love and mercy of God is perfectly and fully revealed. The Son of God is arrested, abused, condemned, crowned with thorns, nailed to the cross, and dies in torment. He who had so beautifully communicated mercy is denied mercy. He is not spared from the injustice of man. “For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin,” the Apostle writes. These words succinctly summarize the the work of divine redemption through the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Christ. The cross discloses the holiness of God:

Indeed this Redemption is the ultimate and definitive revelation of the holiness of God, who is the absolute fullness of perfection: fullness of justice and of love, since justice is based on love, flows from it and tends towards it. In the passion and death of Christ—in the fact that the Father did not spare His own Son, but “for our sake made him sin”—absolute justice is expressed, for Christ undergoes the passion and cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes even a “superabundance” of justice, for the sins of man are “compensated for” by the sacrifice of the Man-God. Nevertheless, this justice, which is properly justice “to God’s measure,” springs completely from love: from the love of the Father and of the Son, and completely bears fruit in love. Precisely for this reason the divine justice revealed in the cross of Christ is “to God’s measure,” because it springs from love and is accomplished in love, producing fruits of salvation. The divine dimension of redemption is put into effect not only by bringing justice to bear upon sin, but also by restoring to love that creative power in man thanks also which he once more has access to the fullness of life and holiness that come from God. In this way, redemption involves the revelation of mercy in its fullness.

The Paschal Mystery is the culmination of this revealing and effecting of mercy, which is able to justify man, to restore justice in the sense of that salvific order which God willed from the beginning in man and, through man, in the world. The suffering Christ speaks in a special way to man, and not only to the believer. The non-believer also will be able to discover in Him the eloquence of solidarity with the human lot, as also the harmonious fullness of a disinterested dedication to the cause of man, to truth and to love. And yet the divine dimension of the Paschal Mystery goes still deeper. The cross on Calvary, the cross upon which Christ conducts His final dialogue with the Father, emerges from the very heart of the love that man, created in the image and likeness of God, has been given as a gift, according to God’s eternal plan. God, as Christ has revealed Him, does not merely remain closely linked with the world as the Creator and the ultimate source of existence. He is also Father: He is linked to man, whom He called to existence in the visible world, by a bond still more intimate than that of creation. It is love which not only creates the good but also grants participation in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For he who loves desires to give himself.

Divine justice flows from love, and through this love justice is restored to God’s creation. The Pope avoids the rhetorical opposition of love and justice, of which St Isaac is so fond. He will not speak of such an opposition because, in his his eyes, to divorce love and justice would suggest an approval and indulgence of wickedness and injury. Christ commands us to forgive seventy-times-seven, but this absolute command to forgive does not abolish the “objective requirements of justice,” the need of those who have been forgiven to make compensation and reparation to those whom they have injured. In this sense we may say that justice is the the goal of forgiveness. “Thus the fundamental structure of justice,” John Paul explains, “always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, shows that, over and above the process of ‘compensation’ and ‘truce’ which is specific to justice, love is necessary, so that man may affirm himself as man.”

The mercy of God is infinite and inexhaustible. The Father always stands ready and eager to welcome home his prodigal children. Flowing from the sacrifice of Christ—“that ‘kiss’ given by mercy to justice”—the power of God’s forgiveness breaks through all boundaries. “No human sin,” proclaims the Pope, “can prevail over this power or even limit it. On the part of man only a lack of good will can limit it, a lack of readiness to be converted and to repent, in other words persistence in obstinacy, opposing grace and truth, especially in the face of the witness of the cross and resurrection of Christ.” Conversion is not a precondition for God’s mercy but the discovery of his mercy, a discovery of a love that is always patient and kind. Those who attain to this knowledge of the merciful love of God live in a state of perpetual conversion, constantly turning to God and re-experiencing the tender forgiveness of the Father.

Despite differences in emphasis, St Isaac of Nineveh and John Paul II (now canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church) clearly share a deep common faith in the God who is love, the God whose prodigal mercy scandalizes the righteous and redeems the ungodly.

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 20 January 2008)

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3 Responses to The Scandalous Injustice of Grace

  1. mary benton says:

    Thanks, Fr. Aidan. I haven’t visited your blog in a while but the title of this post caught my eye this evening. So glad that I came and read. A lot to reflect on here – I feel much encouraged.

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  2. Marc says:

    It seems to me that mercy given to one who is truly repentant is no injustice at all. True repentance would lead one to seek reconciliation demonstrated in actions to restore what was damaged or destroyed. For those who commit murder, they must be reconciled to their victims whom only God can restore. Perhaps this is all part of the mystery of the particular judgment that takes place when the spirit and soul enter the spiritual realm after the death of the body.

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  3. will f. says:

    our only hope!

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