Back 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 soteriological question: 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?”
“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 and social media. 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. 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 trusts the divine word of absolution that was spoken to him, and that word is sufficient.
Yet our instinctive reaction is “That is not enough.” We want to see deeper sorrow and shame, tears, reparations, a dramatic change in the man’s life before we will consider the possibility that God has forgiven this professional murderer. It’s all too easy, even unfair. Grace is not cheap, as we preachers are wont to say. But then we remember a parable that Jesus once told about the Kingdom of God:
For the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place; and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too.’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the householder, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last. (Matt 20:1-16)
So why are we scandalized by the prodigal generosity of God? After all, do we not hope that God will also be outrageously generous with us? We say we do, yet do we?
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.
Talk about a surprising turn of events, both for the audience but especially for the righteous-damned. Imagine their shock and terror. Surely we would not respond as they did, we think to ourselves. Or would we? do we? It’s quite one thing for God to invite me into the vineyard at the first, third, or sixth hour; but I still want him to mete out justice to everyone else. We talk a lot about the unconditionality of the divine love. We say we believe it; we joyously celebrate it. God is love and mercy, we emphatically proclaim. Yet the law of just deserts lies deep in our hearts, waiting for the right moment to erupt in righteous indignation. “And at that very instant they’re damned.” As the reprobate in our Lord’s parable of the Great Assize are surprised by their condemnation (“Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?” [Matt 25:44]), so the good standing in line to enter into heaven are, and will be, horrified to discover in themselves their own hatred of God’s unconditional love and thus of God himself. The injustice of grace scandalizes.
(I cannot help but wonder if the scandal of grace underlies the violent opposition engendered by the good news of apokatastasis. It violates our deep notions of equity. God is absolute love, but surely there are conditions that must first be met if righteousness is to prevail. Hell is just so damned fair.)
God is infinitely just, indeed is justice. So the Bible teaches. Over the centuries theologians have elaborated upon this divine attribute in various ways. All are agreed that the God of the Bible always acts in perfect equity; all are agreed that righteousness should characterize the Christian life … all, that is, except one.
“Mercy is opposed to justice!” declares St Isaac of Nineveh.
Mercy and justice in one soul is like a man who worships God and the idols in one house. Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is the equality of the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves; and when it makes recompense, it does not incline to one side or show respect of persons. Mercy, on the other hand, is a sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness, and it compassionately inclines a man in the direction of all; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. If, therefore, it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness, then justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. As grass and fire cannot co-exist in one place, so justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul. As a grain of sand cannot counterbalance a great quantity of gold, so in comparison God’s use of justice cannot counterbalance His mercy. (Ascetical Homilies I.51, p. 379)
A little later in the same homily, Isaac provocatively states, “Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ’s teaching” (I.51, p. 382). The disciple of Christ seeks to emulate in his life the extravagant mercy of God, for it this mercy that God has so graciously showered upon us. Hence the holy mystic instructs his readers:
Do not hate the sinner; for we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins and pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how he wept over Jerusalem. We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also. Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? (I.51, p. 387).
What do we know of the justice of God, when all we know is his unmerited grace and forgiveness? The disciples of Jesus seek to become like their Lord and thus to become like God. As a counselor of souls, Isaac knows that when a person turns his heart toward justice, he inevitably becomes consumed with pride, vengeance, and the desire for requital and retribution. Remember the righteous-damned.
St Isaac then makes his famous pronouncement:
Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are. Although your debt to him is so very great, He is not seen exacting payment from you; and from the small works you do, He bestows great reward upon you. 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.” (I.51, p. 387; emphasis mine)
Surely this must be one of the most revolutionary statements in patristic literature. Are you tempted to dismiss it as hyperbole? Know that you are not alone. Upon hearing this statement, biblical scholars will compile all the verses that speak of God’s covenantal justice, and moral theologians will lecture on the supernatural and cardinal virtues. As far as parish pastors, they will feel uncomfortable and not know what to preach. But all will agree that Isaac has crossed over into rhetorical excess, if not theological error. But it is precisely at this point of excess, Isaac tells us, that the gospel begins:
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 choose to give unto this last even as unto thee. Or 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 his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it, and thus bore witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice?—for while we are sinners Christ died for us! But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change. (I.51, p. 387)
If you hear in these words echoes of Martin Luther, you would not be wrong; but Isaac is no sola fide Protestant. Luther would find the way that Isaac combines his understanding of the unconditionality of the divine love with a rigorous asceticism quite unacceptable—and he would be the poorer for that. Yet I think Luther would rejoice in this powerful proclamation of the gospel that triumphs over every legalism, every justice. The gospel dramatically turns upside down conventional, and even biblical, understandings of divine justice. The Holy Trinity wills only the good of the sinner, even at the cost of justice.
Latin theologians are loath to speak of a conflict between divine love and divine justice; ultimately they cannot conflict. Yet as Pope John Paul II acknowledges in his excellent 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, he 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.” (III.4)
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” (IV.5). 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. (IV.6)
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 declares, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). 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. (V.7)
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 command 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” (VII.14).
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” (VII.13). 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 repentance, 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.
A special word to preachers: Do not be reluctant to proclaim the gospel of God’s love in its full radicality. Yes, I know all the conundrums it poses. I have wrestled with them since my ordination to the priesthood in 1980. But be assured that it is precisely the scandal of grace that opens the hearts of our people to faith and repentance.
(17 March 2013/27 Oct 2014; rev.)