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Mercy, justice, and offering the other cheek

On the Readings for Sunday, February 20, 2022.

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 1207 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. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  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.

      • Also since 2007, we now have “who am I to judge?”

        Gone viral, has this airborne remark become a cryptic oracle for separating mercy from justice–or for (b) separating dogmatic truth from what is accommodated or even enabled in practice, or (c) objective “ideas” from subjective “realities,” or for (d) suspending the universal morality of natural law and moral absolutes from special cases, or for (e) protecting the “walking-together” People of God from the very broad-brush “scourge of clericalism,” or for (f) blurring or displacing the universal and Eucharistic Church with a federation of potentially contradictory synodals, or for (g) distancing the siren call of a free-floating Hegelian Holy Spirit from the truly relational, historical, once-only event of Jesus Christ (the self-disclosed Triune Oneness), or for (h) upending relational/binary human sexual complementarity with (if not the “spectrum” of gender theory, then) the mainstreaming—even within the Church—of the “rectum” homosexual lifestyle.
        Standby, in these matters, and in his recent (and staged?) media interviews, the Synod on Synodality’s relator-general Cardinal Hollerich seems already to have publicly signaled possibly cryptic wording for the synodal “synthesis” of 2023—the ever-new new oracle!
        But who am I to judge?

        • That’s right. Who are YOU to judge? That applies to me and everyone here. Yes, we can say stealing, lying, bearing false witness and so on are sins, but can we honestly call someone who is lying a sinner? What if he does not know that what he says is a lie? What if it was not his intention to lie? Yes, he has done wrong but he may or may not be guilty of the wrongdoing. Only God looks deep into our souls.
          So, if Jesus tells us very clearly – and with good reason – that we should NOT judge, then that is a command from the Lord. Unless the one judging has judged Jesus and found his command to be faulty.

          • Are you familiar with the Spiritual Works of Mercy? Counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, and admonishing the sinner all require the need to make a diagnosis, a judgment, that a situation requires that these works be performed.
            Forgiving injuries and bearing wrongs patiently were greatly abused in the clerical abuse scandal, denying the victims justice. Enabling the damaging of more victims. Mercy can be a cover story for moral desertion.

  4. There’s a price to pay. Ransomed from Satan and eternal hell Christ paid the price by his terrible suffering and death. As in all transactions we must make recompense to our Savior. Evidence of the desire, its moral character to escape eternal hell is not the desire itself, rather in the willingness to suffer in recognition of our sins, and as an act of penitential sorrow for the suffering we caused him. Real contrition.
    When the case broke out 1994 Compassion in Dying v Christine Gregoire [governor state of Washington the first national address of physician assisted suicide] I lectured on the issues discussed at a VA Medical Center. Although medical staff were mainly interested in alleviating the grievous suffering of Washington State end stage Aids patients, consequently concerned entirely with ending suffering Staff nevertheless had internal issues of conscience with suicide, which is what euthanasia is when the patient consents. Without consent it’s murder.
    My effort focused mainly on the absence of juridical approbation in history particularly the Common Law, a body of unwritten though legal judgments, natural law, traditional policy. For example in England, from which the American states received and incorporated in their state constitutions the Common Law [of England] and many which hold today.
    An example of how suicide was viewed if someone committed suicide the King would assume their properties [except for that which would sustain the widow and family]. England reasoned that a person’s life was not entirely his own, that his life belonged to the entire cultural fabric to which he was part. A vital premise that acknowledges first our life as a gift from God, and its responsibility to family, king, and nation. And of course the Mystical Body in the world. That approach opened [for conscience] a different consideration than simply ending suffering, that suffering even in a limited context had practical as well as spiritual purpose. Spiritually for the non believer heroic effort to endure for the good of others may awaken one to what has greater value.

    • Mention is made of Christine Gregoire of Washington State…Gregoire was the state Attorney General in 1994, defending against euthanasia.

      But, as for the State of Washington, behold (a) the first population in the history of the world to approve gay “marriage,” in 2012, and prior to that, (b) the second state to approve euthanasia (2009), and (c) the second to legalize marijuana (2012/2013). And, most recently, (d) again the first (hurray!) to approve the composting of deceased human beings (2019).

      Gregoire was governor in 2005-2013 and an advocate for abortion. She is also “Catholic,” as are our two state senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray. No doubt all points of view will be forwarded by these or other community leaders at the totally open-mike synods now underway, as “facilitated” (Vademecum) by the Successors to the Apostles. Say what?

      Again, might we anticipate a harmonized “symphony” (“compiled/aggregated/with minority reports”) of all possible opinions in the national synodal “synthesis”? The continental “synthesis”? And then the grand-finale synod-on-synodality (!) “synthesis”—under the tutelage of the flaccid relator-general Cardinal Hollerich from Luxembourg?

      Both the People of God, and the God-people.

      • We’re apparently about to face a two headed dragon. Appointments during [new paradigm] transition convey an ideological blueprint.
        “Archbishop Scicluna defended the guidelines, saying they adhered to Amoris Laetitia and also followed the interpretation that the Pope approved. But many local clergy were unconvinced and complained of a heavy-handed crackdown on anyone unwilling to subscribe. During the Vatican Abuse Summit in 2019, Archbishop Scicluna, one of the summit’s main organizers, said heterosexuality and homosexuality are human conditions that we recognize, that exist. But they aren’t something that really predisposes to sin. He also said that a homosexual subculture in seminaries was not connected to the sexual abuse of minors” (Is Archbishop Scicluna Headed for a Leadership Role at the CDF? E Pentin NCReg).
        To return to the topic of the article it should added here that the Church as well as Aquinas [see Aquinas ST 2a2ae 64, 7] recognize a right to self defense [tolerating abuse has its limits]. A man for example is certainly obliged to protect his wife and children from assault. A man is also morally obliged to defend the weak when they are under assault.

  5. Regarding:

    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.”

    Thousands of pages into my online reading, someone finally offers some useful background. Thank you, Carl.

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