“Justice or Mercy?” – Fr. Bob’s Homily for Sunday, February 20, 202

The story of David’s encounter with Saul today makes for fascinating reading. I encourage you to read the whole story, the whole of chapter 26 of the first book of Samuel, not just the bits and pieces that we are given today. If you do, be aware that this is the second story of David reprieving Saul, his enemy. Just a couple of chapters before, in chapter 24, we see David coming upon Saul while Saul is relieving himself in a cave, and refraining from striking him dead, even though Saul is pursuing David out of jealousy, knowing that David is next in line to succeed him as king. David’s forbearance is truly remarkable, given the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye, a life for a life”. David refuses to strike Saul dead, even though he has him at his mercy, nor will he allow his soldiers to kill him. David is giving an example of true leadership to his men, shown in his blending of mercy and justice. He is also giving us an insight into the kingly heart of God Himself. Earlier, God had spoken in the book of Samuel, that David was a man after his own heart.

You might think David is just soft, a doormat, that anyone can get away with anything as far as he is concerned. Not so. He would not have been able to command the respect of an army of tough, blood-thirsty ruffians and mercenaries if he were perceived as a weak commander. The story of David’s bid for kingship and his eventual reign over all of Israel shows examples of David being absolutely forthright in executing criminal offenders. But he also knows when to hold back in exercising the absolute right he has as king to deal out instant justice. There is a compelling story from later in David’s reign when his son, Absalom, rises in revolt against his father, and forces him to flee from his capital, Jerusalem. As he is retreating, a man from Saul’s family comes out to meet David and his retinue of soldiers, and begins to curse David and say that he is receiving the punishment from God for killing Saul. Now, this is totally wrong. David had nothing to do with Saul’s death. As we have seen, he even spared Saul’s life even though Saul was hunting him down to kill him. But, when David’s army commander, demands to be allowed to cut down this man for cursing David, David forbids him to do so. You might think that this was only because David was in a weakened state, fleeing for his life. But, when his son, Absalom is killed and the revolt quashed, and David can return to take up his throne again, this same man is brought before him and begs for his life, and David pardons him. But, shrewd enough to want to keep this man under scrutiny, David orders him to stay in a kind of “house arrest”. Mercy blended with justice.

I have lingered over this story of King David because, as I said earlier, it sheds light on the way our God is also our King, showing mercy and justice together. Our gospel passage today has Jesus instructing us, his disciples, to |”be merciful as your Father God is merciful”. In what way is God “merciful”? Earlier, I said that David was not soft or weak. He knew people’s hearts and motivations, and knew when to exercise strict justice and when to graciously bestow mercy also. It is the same way with God. We read Jesus saying in our gospel today that we are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate you , pray for those who abuse you. We are also told, when we are struck on one cheek, to turn the other so it can be struck also; when asked for alms, to give freely without looking for any earthly reward. God, says Jesus, is kind “to the ungrateful and wicked”; the implication is that we should be also.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this comes close to sounding rather unrealistic and unwise practice. It is just begging to be made a fool of, to be taken to the cleaners for everything we have. We can point to examples in our lives when exactly this has happened to us, or to someone we know. I regularly struggle, and have done so ever since I became a Christian, with the whole idea of giving to every beggar I come across. I have argued to myself that it is not a good idea to put money into the hands of those who are probably alcoholics and drug addicts – I have had arguments with other good and kind Christians about this. And yet, here is Jesus saying that I should give to everyone who begs from me, and even give over and above what they ask, even the shirt off your back. I have had good and blunt discussions with sincere , faith-filled Christians about how far should you go in these matters– if a family member is taking advantage of you, continually asking for money to feed a habit and not seeking treatment, for example, do you simply keep handing over the money or do you challenge them on their lifestyle , and what happens if they refuse to change , do you cut them off , if not from your love, at least from your money? 

These are difficult moral decisions, and I’m sure you, like me, have had to struggle with them, given our desire to be faithful to Christ’s words and his example. St Francis de Sales once said:” True virtue has no limits” and Jesus says, as we see in today’s gospel, that God is “kind to the ungrateful and the wicked”.  God is long-suffering, wonderfully patient, for sure, but, along with his mercy, he looks for repentance from us. Repentance means a whole change of life, from sin to righteousness, and while he will wait until the last moment of our lives for this to happen, it doesn’t mean that he will not let us experience the consequences of our wrong choices along the way. He will not always intervene to save us from the consequences of our selfishness and addictions and sinful actions if we stubbornly resist his help to change. He will let us fall and hit rock bottom, and in this, he can be really tough. But it is always what we call “tough love”. In allowing us to hit rock bottom, he is there waiting for us, extending his hand to lift us out of our pit, if only we will take hold of it at last and have, as we say in our act of contrition, a “firm desire of amendment”, a real willingness to take the necessary steps to change. If not, he will leave us languishing in our pit of misery, even though it cuts his heart open with anguish, because he knows that only repentance on our part will save us . For most of us, it is only when the pain of not changing is worse than the pain of changing, that we will take the necessary steps to change. And God knows that As I have said before, he knows human nature very well, since he was the one who created it and so, even as he, in his justice, allows us to experience the consequences of our follies, it is also at the same time, a mercy on his part. A severe mercy, maybe, but a mercy, nonetheless. God is not a pushover, but he is love, even if it is at times, as I have said, a tough love. 

Back to David. We all know that he, when king, sinned very grievously , first, by committing adultery with Bathsheba, and making her pregnant,  and then, by trying to cover up his sin by having her husband, Uriah, killed in battle. We are told that what he did “displeased” the Lord (2 Samuel 11:27) so he sends his prophet, Nathan to David, to charge him with his sin. God could have simply killed David directly, but he wants to give him the chance to repent, so he doesn’t go to hell. When David is confronted with his sin by Nathan, he immediately responds “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13) and the Lord forgives him his sin. We might think that God was letting him off easy for truly wicked sins. But what pleases God is that David fully and freely admits his guilt, makes no excuses, unlike with many of us, myself included. And David doesn’t “get away with it”. Sin does have its consequences. The child that Bathsheba has with David dies, and if you think that still makes it easy for David, you have never been with a parent who has lost a child or read how David fasts and prays to try to save the life of his child. God is willing to forgive our sins through his mercy, if we repent, and to give us a lot of time to repent, but sin has its consequences, on us and on others, and God, in his justice, cannot overlook the very real harm that our sin causes. Innocent people suffer as a result, and that is the reality of sin, brothers and sisters. We cannot overlook or dismiss our sin as inconsequential, or a “mistake” or a “lapse”, even though God is merciful and ready to forgive. A mature willingness to face up to our sin and its consequences is what God looks for from us, is what God found in David, and why he loved him so much. And that is why the sacrament of confession is so important, a place where there is no equivocation or excuse, but an honest confession of our fault and the harm it has done to us and to others. I was delighted to find that, after the last homily when I urged on you the importance and need we have for this particular sacrament, many did contact me and ask me to hear their confession. May this homily have the same effect.

The other reason why God was willing to forgive David was, and this is so important, brothers and sisters, that David was himself, as we have seen, willing to have mercy on others. The letter of James says, not mincing words, “Merciless is God’s judgement on those who are not merciful themselves. But our mercy triumphs over his judgement “(James 2:13). Jesus’ own words confirms the truth of that statement:” If you do not forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15).  We cannot expect mercy from God for ourselves, but demand that he punishes others who have offended us with strict justice. I wish that I was better at this than I am, to be honest with you, brothers, and sisters, but I suspect that many of us, including myself, might well bring to our next sacrament of confession, our unwillingness to forgive those who have offended us. What do you think, brothers and sisters? “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, he does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities”. So says our responsorial psalm today. Can we say that we are, like David, someone after the Lord’s own heart?