The Difference Between Mercy and Justice

In the Hebrew Bible, we see a different form of action taken by Moses. In this example, we see extreme hardship placed on an entire nation – not solely an individual. We learn that Pharaoh has turned the Israelites into slave laborers and ordered midwives to kill every male infant at birth. In response, God calls upon an unlikely champion, Moses, to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. We watch Moses powerfully confront Pharaoh, demand freedom for his people, bring God’s powers to bear on Pharaoh, and ultimately win justice for the Hebrew people.

 These stories have contrasting elements that are helpful when considering how we might respond to the needs of our community. 

  •  The Samaritan does not attempt to survey the causes of highway banditry. Instead, he provides much needed immediate relief. Moses, on the other hand, does not deal with the individual victims of Pharaoh’s rule – he confronts the source of the injustice.
  • The Samaritan limits his work to the beaten man, and simply resolves the problem with good deeds--while the underlying problem of banditry still remains. Moses does not merely help one person escape from slavery, rather he takes public action to bring an end to the institution of slavery.

In short, the Samaritan’s action was one of mercy, and Moses’ was an act to secure justice for the many.

This distinction may seem elementary on the surface, but it is often overlooked within congregational life. Consider possible responses to the problem of poor education in some communities. The basic ability to read and write has proven to be directly related to one’s quality of life. Yet public schools throughout the country are failing to produce quality education for all.

  • In the spirit of the Samaritan, the church may decide to respond to this crisis by establishing a tutoring program through the generosity of its members. As a result, twenty-five kids show remarkable improvement in their test scores. Meanwhile, the school system stumbles along and hundreds of other children fail to achieve basic reading and writing abilities.
  • Another church may decide to act in the spirit of Moses by recognizing the failure of the school system and organizing with other congregations to publicly call for needed changes that would make all schools more effective.

The choice between justice and mercy can be seen time and time again when looking at various responses to any number of crises in community: housing, healthcare, quality of life, employment, access to transportation, crime—problems in all of these areas can be approached from the perspective of doing mercy or of enacting justice.

God calls us to both mercy and justice; to attend to suffering individuals and to address broken systems. While many organizations in our community engage in good and necessary ministries of justice, Justice Matters seeks to highlight our obligations for justice. The goal of Justice Matters is to build a vehicle for congregations to come together in order to fulfill God's requirement to do justice.

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