"Tension Between Justice and Mercy" – Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Well, as many of you know, I am in my fourth and final year at Trinity Lutheran Seminary. And, I must admit, calling prominent leaders a “fox” or any other derogatory term, like Jesus did in today's Gospel, isn’t something I’ve been taught to do. There haven’t been any classes on casting out demons, or on upending temple tables. And you’ll be happy to know that we’re actually taught to love and respect those with whom we disagree.
But not Jesus ... not exactly, at least. No matter how many times I read through the Gospels, I’m usually taken aback at how blunt Jesus is. In fact, today’s Gospel follows the passage where Jesus tells those with him that, though they ate and drank with him, they will fail to sit at the heavenly banquet with him.
So Jesus can be uncomfortably blunt—and I often have trouble with that. I also have trouble with the seemingly opposite ideas of justice and mercy that pervade the Gospels. In today’s passage, Jesus is compelled to “call out” those who are not of God—those who don’t act justly, whether they be Herod Antipas or the people of Jerusalem who would crucify him. Yet, his whole mission on earth is to forgive and even die for those same people.
Jesus, in this reading today, not only says that his mission is above earthly rule and that even Herod’s evil intentions cannot stop that—he also laments for the city and people of Jerusalem, saying, “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wing, and you were not willing!” Jesus was in this world, with all of its pain and injustice, but he also was trying not to be assimilated by the world. All of this makes me think: How did Jesus balance the mercy for which he was sent with the justice to be given to those who abused power and hurt the innocent? ... Think about this with me again: How did Jesus balance the mercy for which he was sent with the justice to be given to those who abused power and hurt and killed the innocent?
Lately I have been thinking about these themes, justice and mercy. I came across a blog I wrote a few years ago where I pondered the contradicting aspects of justice and mercy as found at the end of the book of Micah. You probably know that passage: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” -- Micah 6:8.
It’s a well-known little pronouncement that kind of summarizes God’s will for everyone. And, at first glance, it seems pretty simple and direct. But to act justly and to love mercy can’t be so simple, can they? Seeking justice invokes thoughts of punishment and accountability. Mercy, on the other hand, invokes thoughts of compassion and forgiveness. They seem like they’re on opposite ends of the “how-we-ought-to-live” spectrum, don’t they?
So how do we balance these very different commands of God ... and how did Jesus balance them as he moved toward his inevitable death in Jerusalem?
You would think that, of the two, acting justly might be the more difficult. Acting justly means doing things like going to the Statehouse to advocate for laws that will support those on the margins, and speaking out against the many injustices in our world. But I think it might be harder to love mercy. To care about people you don’t even know. Or people completely different than you and I. Like the immigrant. Like the Muslim. Like the homeless. Like the transgender man or woman.
Justice and mercy. We’re called to both and sometimes it’s hard to know what that looks like. Loving those who are hard to love ... forgiving your spouse and children, or forgiving yourself for how you have acted all too often ... speaking up when that co-worker makes an uneducated comment about “those people” (fill in the blank with who “those people” are).
In a moment, I’m going to show a clip from the movie, 12 Angry Men, the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda as the famous Juror Number 8. I want to show you a part of this film because it’s the best modern-day example I know of finding that balance of acting justly and loving mercy. If you haven’t seen the film, the premise is that a Hispanic teenage boy has been convicted of killing his father. Twelve male jurors are sent into a room to deliberate the boy’s guilt or innocence. Eleven of the men promptly decide that the boy is guilty. Henry Fonda plays the lone, dissenting voice that votes not-guilty, if only to allow some time for discussion before quickly sending the boy off to a death sentence. Juror Number 8, played by Fonda, is a great example of both acting justly and loving mercy—of caring about the truth while holding compassion as one’s highest value.
[listen above for movie clip audio]
I love the line at the end of that clip, “Hey this isn’t Sunday, we don’t need a sermon.” Well, perhaps we all need a sermon when it comes to treating people with both justice and mercy. Because it’s not easy. The Christian faith isn’t easy, and in the life and death of Jesus we see how uneasy it is. To be the lone, dissenting voice that refuses to push people away out of the fear of not knowing them, or not understanding them. To be the one who loves the people whose Facebook posts make you cringe. To stay in dialogue with people, and not to gather with only those “like us.” I think this movie is a poignant example of what it looks like—what it means—to stand alone against people and ideas that are not “of God,” that are not “of love,” while still being a compassionate human being. Even in Jesus’s lament in today’s Gospel we can find, ultimately, a word of promise and hope, a message of mercy—even to those who would reject and kill him.
So what does it look like to act justly and to love mercy? I think it looks like traveling 1,700 miles to Fondwa, Haiti. I think it looks like caring for people who live in places like Haiti, where necessities like food, home, and sanitation are lacking, if they exist at all. I think it looks like speaking out against the things not “of God” in our world—racism, sexism, prejudice, greed, hate, abuse of power—while still making love and forgiveness our highest goal. I think it looks like loving those who are not easily lovable. To do all of this is not easy, and it means living in a continual tension. Today I invite you to live in that tension with me.