A little over a week ago, I had two posts from meditations during a week-end lectio divina retreat that involved the concept of justice in the Old Testament book of Malachi and in that Sunday's Gospel reading from St. Luke's Gospel. This post will set what was said there in the context of forgiveness, and in the context of justice viewed as one of the four cardinal virtues.
The concept of "justice" in Scripture as discussed in the earlier posts:
Those posts were A Meditation on God's Love as Seen in the Book of Malachi and More Notes from a Lectio Divina Retreat: Persistence in Prayer. One of several words that caught my attention in Malachi 3 was "justice," from Malachi 3:19-20:
For lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, And the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays; And you will gambol like calves out of the stall.
The word translated "justice" in Malachi 3:20 (4:2 in some Bibles) has the following definition in Strong's lexicon:
1. justice, righteousness
a. righteousness (in government)
1. of judge, ruler, king
2. of law
3. of Davidic king Messiah
b. righteousness (of God's attribute)
c. righteousness (in a case or cause)
d. righteousness, truthfulness
e. righteousness (as ethically right)
f. righteousness (as vindicated), justification, salvation
1. of God
2. prosperity (of people)
g. righteous acts
From Luke 18:6-8, the concept of justice came up again:
And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge said; now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? "I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?"
As discussed in the post on persistence in prayer, the promise of justice is in eternity, while persistence in prayer is in time. Yet, praying "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," Christians naturally seek justice in this life, asking "How long, oh Lord."
The Greek word translated "justice" in Luke 18:6 has the following definition in the same lexicon:
a revenging, vengeance, punishment
a. In 2 Cor 7:11 -- meeting out of justice; doing justice to all parties. See Luke 18:3, 21:22. The word also has the sense of acquittal and carries the sense of vindication. - Vincent III p. 329.
The concept of "forgiveness" in Scripture:
The longing for justice is Christian where it falls within the desire to see God's will done for the least among us, for the widow and the orphan, the rejects of society, and the poorest of the poor.
However, the reference to justice in the previous post about persistence sets it in the context of martyrdom, quoting Revelation 6:10-11, which speaks of the persistence of the martyrs under the altar of the Lord in heaven, awaiting justice:
"They cried out in a loud voice, 'How long will it be, holy and true master, before you sit in judgment and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?' Each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to be patient a little while longer until the number was filled of their fellow servants and brothers who were going to be killed as they had been."
The context of martyrdom necessarily sets the prayer for justice in the context of forgiveness, in a way that is more clearly Christian. Jesus on the cross forgave those who killed him ("Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34). The Church's first martyr, St. Stephen, prayed as he was being stoned to death, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Acts 7:60).
The centrality of forgiveness to Christianity is shown by the emphasis placed on it by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, including the Lord's Prayer. While we pray, in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," we also pray "And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matt. 6:12). Jesus added, at the end of the Lord's prayer, "For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." (Matt. 6:14-15).
Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said, "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 one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matt. 5:38-39).
Thus, while the concept of justice appears in both the Old and New Testaments, including the words of Jesus, it is presented in the context of forgiveness in this life, with the assurance that justice has already been accomplished in eternity.
I think this makes forgiveness easier, a more obvious thing to do (although not always my initial reaction when presented with a situation that seems unfair!). If things have already been made even, if everyone has already been squared, then there is no remaining score to settle. There is no injustice between us and another person to be made right, as we already have the assurance that it has been made right in eternity. There is no loss to ourselves then in granting forgiveness to the other person. It is covered already by the grace of Jesus, by the debt that He paid for each of us on the Cross, and by the justice of God given to us in eternity and in the purification of the final Judgment -- God's gift of salvation given to those who are His.
The more we believe that we have been forgiven as an act of God's grace, the price of our sins having been paid by the death of Christ on the cross, the more compelling it is that we must forgive -- not in spite of an injustice, but rather because justice demands it. Jesus illustrated this with a parable at Matthew 18:21-35:
Then Peter came up and said to him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven. "Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, 'Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat he said, 'Pay what you owe.' So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."
The parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35 is, I think, about the justice of forgiveness, which Jesus asks from each of us.
Justice as a Cardinal Virtue
As the Church's concern for the poor and for the stability of society led to Christian social action, especially as the Roman Empire declined and as educated people entered the Church, the concept of justice in Roman thought, from Greek philosophers, entered the Church. It was, of course, a concept of social responsibility that could be shown to be consistent with Scripture. In the thinking of Greek philosophy, justice was among the four "cardinal virtues," and the Greek philosophy concerning social justice thus informed the Early Church as to the practical implications of the Scriptural demand that Christians support justice.
The Catholic Encyclopedia traces the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice) back to Greek philosophy. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about them in Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 61, Articles 2 and 4, relying partly on the work of Pope/St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine as well as the Greek philosophers.
St. Thomas wrote, "Augustine says (De Moribus Eccl. xi) that "there are four virtues, corresponding to the various emotions of love," and he applies this to the four virtues mentioned above. Therefore the same four virtues are distinct from one another." St. Augustine's description of justice as an emotion of love can be seen, in the Scripture quoted above, Jesus' parable of the widow appealing for justice. Jesus' promise that God will speedily grant justice to those who persevere in prayer is clearly an aspect of God's love. Malachi, too, speaks of "the sun of justice" as an aspect of love, in a prophetic book that begins with a reference to God's love. Thus, the words "justice" and "healing" appeared together in the earlier post about God's love as seen in the Book of Malachi (linked above).
Agreeing with St. Augustine again, St. Thomas also wrote, "As Augustine says (De Moribus Eccl. vi), 'the soul needs to follow something in order to give birth to virtue: this something is God: if we follow Him we shall live aright.' . . . His justice is the observance of the Eternal Law in His works, as Plotinus states (Cf. Macrobius, Super Somn. Scip. 1)."
Pope Benedict XVI mentioned the commitment of the Early Church to holiness, peace and justice in his General Audience address today, speaking of St. Maximus of Turin. In English, at the end of the Audience, he said:
"His example and teaching remind us that, whatever the age in which they live, Christian believers are called upon to carry out faithfully their duties as citizens, working to imbue temporal society with the spirit of the Gospel, and striving to achieve a vital synthesis between their duties as citizens of the earthly city and their commitment to work for the coming of God’s Kingdom of holiness, justice and peace."
He did not mention the cardinal virtues, and I do not actually know whether St. Maximus specifically mentioned the cardinal virtues in his homilies or other writings. However, St. Maximus' work to bring the concept of the Kingdom of God into the role of Christians as "citizens of the earthly city" (Reflecting the prayer, "Thy kingdom come . . . on earth") seems to invoke the social and political value of justice within Roman thought as within Scripture.
The concepts of "justice" in Hebrew (Malachi 3), New Testament Greek (Luke 18) and Greek philosophy (the cardinal virtues) may not, in fact, be identical. Each language, and each culture, has a slightly different meaning. However, the Early Church saw justice in the cardinal virtues as consistent with the values of Scripture, and the application to duty as a citizen helps to clarify that the Christian commitment to justice is a matter of duty to serve society rather than a right to demand revenge without forgiveness.
In that context, forgiveness and justice work hand in hand toward virtue.
Justice and God's Grace in Spe Salvi (Added December 30)
Some of Pope Benedict's thoughts on justice and forgiveness in the encyclical Spe Salvi are important enough to this topic that I thought it best to add them to the post to set it more clearly in the context of Church teaching. The encyclical was published November 30, 2007, after this post was originally written.
Faith in God's justice through the last Judgment, seen as an aspect of God's love, is hope. In section 43 of Spe Salvi, the Holy Father made this point, as follows:
"This innocent sufferer has attained the certitude of hope: there is a God, and God can create justice in a way that we cannot conceive, yet we can begin to grasp it through faith. Yes, there is a resurrection of the flesh. There is justice. There is an “undoing” of past suffering, a reparation that sets things aright. For this reason, faith in the Last Judgement is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favour of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfilment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life become fully convincing."
The Holy Father's explanation here of why our faith in God's justice is hope also helps to illustrate the point that justice is an aspect of God's love for us, something for which the martyrs long.
The description in Malachi 3:19-20, quoted above, in which the evildoers will be set on fire and "there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays" can be better understood in the light of sections 46 and 47 of Spe Salvi. There, the Holy Father discusses the connection between grace and justice in the context of the "fire that burns and saves us" in that final Judgment, as described in I Cor. 3:12-15. The explanation there given for the inter-action of God's grace and justice has implications for how we view our forgiveness of others and God's forgiveness of them and ourselves.
Consider the following from section 47:
"In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ's Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. . . . The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1)."
The thought of justice as having already been done in eternity, mentioned above, is reflected in the Holy Father's statement that "our defilement. . . has already been burned away through Christ's Passion." A view of God's grace to us as warranting our mercy toward others thus does not negate the purification process of Judgment through purgatory; rather, it reflects the expectation of that process in ourselves and others.
A victim-saint's forgiveness of an evildoer, as in the case of St. Stephen, similarly arises from the hope in God's justice in the final Judgment. It does not cancel it out. The martyrs who have forgiven those who killed them are thus the same martyrs who cry out for God's judgment in Revelations 6 as quoted above -- for God's justice which is an aspect of His love. In section 44 of Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict wrote:
"To protest against God in the name of justice is not helpful. A world without God is a world without hope (cf. Eph 2:12). Only God can create justice. And faith gives us the certainty that he does so. The image of the Last Judgement is not primarily an image of terror, but an image of hope; for us it may even be the decisive image of hope. Is it not also a frightening image? I would say: it is an image that evokes responsibility, an image, therefore, of that fear of which Saint Hilary spoke when he said that all our fear has its place in love. God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace. This we know by turning our gaze to the crucified and risen Christ. Both these things—justice and grace—must be seen in their correct inner relationship. Grace does not cancel out justice. It does not make wrong into right. It is not a sponge which wipes everything away, so that whatever someone has done on earth ends up being of equal value. Dostoevsky, for example, was right to protest against this kind of Heaven and this kind of grace in his novel The Brothers Karamazov. Evildoers, in the end, do not sit at table at the eternal banquet beside their victims without distinction, as though nothing had happened."
It is that justice that makes such forgiveness a reasonable. Faith that is hope in that justice thus enables forgiveness to be given with God's help and, indeed, such forgiveness, imitating the words of Jesus from the cross, may follow naturally from that faith.
Doing justice toward others, seeking justice in society, and forgiving those who do wrong to us, all reflect love toward other people. We need not, then, see justice and forgiveness in contrast with each other, but rather as virtuous expressions of love, and of God's will, to be done simultaneously in our daily lives.