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Mercy, justice, and offering the other cheek

On the Readings for Sunday, February 24, 2019

Jesus before the high priest (Jn 18), as rendered by José de Madrazo y Agudo (c. 1803) [Wikipedia]

• 1 Sam 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23
• Psa 103:1-2, 3-4, 8, 10, 12-13
• 1 Cor 15:45-49
• Lk 6:27-38

The Thomistic philosopher Josef Pieper, in Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, wrote, “It is entirely possible that the true and authentic reality is being drowned out by the countless superficial information bits noisily and breathlessly presented in propaganda fashion.” An example of reality being destroyed by relentless propaganda can be found in the state of Oregon, where I’ve lived since 1991, where euthanasia, or “assisted suicide,” is commonly referred to as being “merciful.” Indeed, the culture of death insists that abortion and euthanasia are instruments of “mercy.”

Today’s readings do not directly address these issues, but they emphatically present a different understanding of mercy. The biblical view of mercy, contrary to the contemporary counterfeit, is rooted in both reality and the mystery of God’s boundless love. First, in the dramatic story from 1 Samuel, there is the concrete example set by David, who has the opportunity to kill the jealous King Saul. There’s no doubt that if the tables were turned, Saul would have swiftly ended David’s life. But the future king, anointed by the prophet Samuel and recognizing that Saul, however evil he was, was also anointed, spared his enemy. Having shown mercy, David states, “The Lord will reward each man for his justice and faithfulness.”

That linking of mercy and justice is significant, especially since it has become common today to divorce the two, as though true justice has no place for mercy, and mercy is a willful rejection of justice. In Dives in Misericordia, his great encyclical on mercy and justice, Pope John Paul II noted that although mercy differs from justice, it is “not in opposition to it”—if we correctly understand the two in the light of God’s love (par 4). As today’s Psalm declares, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” for He is as a father who “has compassion on those who fear him.”

Luke’s gospel is sometimes called “the Gospel of mercy” because of the emphasis placed on this aspect of Jesus’ teaching. In today’s reading from that Gospel, Jesus speaks of a love that is not humanly possible: “love your enemies…bless those who curse you.” There is also His famous and radical declaration, “To the person who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one as well.” Whatever does this mean? Should we, regardless of the situation, never respond to violence or violation except through pacifism?

Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on Saint John’s Gospel, pointed out that Jesus, when brought before Annas (Jn 18:22f) did not offer His other cheek to be struck. What Jesus refers to, Saint Thomas wrote, “was your interior disposition; that is, if necessary we should be ready not to be intolerant of anyone who hurts us, and we should be ready to put up with this kind of treatment, or worse than that.”

Saint Thomas then points to Christ’s example, when “he surrendered his body to death.”  Supernatural love, which goes beyond human affection, is sacrificial and life giving. Mercy is the gift of that love to those—all of us!—who do not, according to the standards of justice, deserve it. As Jesus explained, anyone can love someone who loves in return. But to love our enemies and expect nothing in return—that is an act of mercy. “Mercy,” wrote the late Holy Father, “has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every … human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin.” (DIM, par 6).

What about Jesus’ condemnation of judging others? This is sometimes twisted to mean that we must make no judgments at all about the actions of others. Of course, that is not only incorrect, it is impossible; we constantly make decisions, big and small, based on our judgment of other’s actions. Jesus condemned making judgments that are not only unjust, but dare to assess what God alone can judge: the inner heart and motives of others. “However,” the Catechism states, “although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.” (CCC 1861). Which is why we can rightly condemn euthanasia as an objective evil, while extending love and mercy to those choosing to commit suicide.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the February 18, 2007 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1163 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.


  1. “We can rightly condemn euthanasia as an objective evil, while extending love and mercy to those choosing to commit suicide” (Olson). During this time of trial, often heated opposition this is not only the best perhaps the only true recourse. We repudiate the error (Justice), pray even sacrifice for the perpetrator (Mercy). The former alone make us spiritually indistinguishable the latter brings us closer to Christ

  2. Although we hear this offered frequently as an interpretation of Matthew 7, the passage is not really about avoiding judging the “hearts and motives” of others. The passage is simply and solely a teaching against hypocrisy in the use of judgment. We are not to judge in another a sin which we ourselves are even more guilty of. I think that is how Jesus’ original audience of first-century Jews would have understood his teaching, as it was a common rabbinical axiom.

  3. I notice Carl Olson in this Mercy Justice refle ction cites “Pope John Paul II”. This will always be my name for him, not that I couldn’t override a virtual lifetime habit as an adult and use the “St.” that most of your other writers seem to do. With the St. title I have to stop for a second or two and make sure I have the right pope in mind. Thanks Carl for giving me permission to JPII as we’ve done for last 40 years.

    • I often do refer to the late pontiff as “St. Pope John Paul II”. But this column was originally written in 2007, and the references were not changed. Not that they have to be. John Paul II is St. John Paul II is St. Pope John Paul II.

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