Today, we consider that cardinal virtue, justice. What is it? The Catechism say simply that ‘Justice consists in the firm and constant will to give God and neighbour his due’ (CCC 1807). This virtue is something we would see practised everywhere and by everyone. From childhood, we feel keenly when something is not fair. We are told that ‘life is not fair’, which adds a certain insult to injury. Still, life is not fair, people and structures are not always just. As one American judge remarked in the 1920s: ‘Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.’ We know very well what he meant.
When we talk about justice, we are usually referring to distributive justice or retributive justice. We want restitution and recompense when someone circumvents or denies our rights. We demand retribution for crimes committed against us: for perpetrators to face “justice” and for the victims of their crimes to receive “justice”.
The Scriptures assure us that the call for justice is right and good and that the role of government is to uphold what is good and to punish evil. We read that God is just and that he is not partial – that he has no favourites. Our Lord told his followers to ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness’ (Matt. 6:33). And in this vein, he spoke about our individual responsibility to bring justice by loving our neighbours and doing good for those around us, especially the poor and marginalized. He talked more about the responsibility of individuals than of authorities to promote good. According to Jesus, those who call themselves his disciples do the work of bringing justice through love and persistence.
When the religious leaders of his day asked our Lord which was the greatest commandment, he answered:
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’
He gave them the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what it meant to love ones neighbour: it means to act for the good of others. That is rendering justice. It is also to show mercy.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the disciples the way they should live. Most of his exhortations hinged on his audience acting justly. He set the tone with the Beatitudes: attitudes oriented toward God, loving toward others.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.
It can be seen that he set a high standard for individual justice. For example, he warned that acting out in anger toward someone was tantamount to murder, urging that if we are angry with someone, we ought to resolve conflicts quickly, and even refraining from offering our gifts to God until we are in a right frame of mind, free from anger (Matt. 5:21ff). He also told his listeners to take extraordinary measures to prevent themselves from dishonouring God and those who bear his image, likening lust for another person to adultery (Matt. 5:27ff). Furthermore, Jesus said that it was not good enough that we love those who love us, but we must love our enemies as well: ‘But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven’ (Matt. 5:44–45). Love is shown in action: doing good for others, giving them justice.
Jesus spoke of people who sought justice through faith and kept asking until they received it. He once told his disciples a parable of a widowed woman who pleaded with an unjust judge to grant her justice in her case (Luke 18). Again and again he refused her, and again and again she brought her claim back to him. Finally, he relented just to get her off his case and leave him in peace. Jesus said, ‘And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.’
You may recall how he himself illustrated this parable, when he initially refused to even listen to a Canaanite woman who came to him anxious about her daughter who was being tormented by an evil spirit (Matt. 15:22ff). ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel,’ he said. Yet she kept on asking, saying, ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ At which, the Lord commended her faith and immediately freed her daughter.
The gospels are full of stories of people coming to Jesus looking for justice, hoping and expecting to receive it. In Christ we see justice always tempered by mercy. When we act justly and show mercy, we become more like him and show ourselves more to truly be his disciples — ‘by the love you have one for another’ (John 13:35). When we become men and women of the Beatitudes and sincerely try to love our neighbours as ourselves, our individual acts of justice of which our Lord spoke, will have a positive impact on the demands for justice that resound throughout the world. They will certainly ‘be righteous in His sight’ (Romans 3:20).
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