We cherish stories that speak to our realities and to the adversities that we encounter. In numerous ways, they help us perceive life better. For this reason, Jesus told countless timely parables during His day and many of these are well-known and loved today. However, there is a parable that appears out of place in the Gospel according to Matthew (18:21-35). Peter inquired how often he must forgive a person who sins against him, but Jesus’ parable does not address the question of repeated forgiveness. It does, however, point out the significance of forgiveness, as well as of mercy and justice.
Merciful is the Lord, the God of justice
Merciless was the servant in this parable who had an exorbitant debt that the king- moved with compassion – forgave after the servant pleaded with him. However, this ruthless and ungrateful servant did not extend the same compassion he received from the Lord toward the fellow servant who owed him a minor debt. Instead, he put his fellow servant in prison until the debt was paid off. And, as we all know, the king heard about this and reproached the servant, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (vs 32-33) As a result, the Lord rescinded his forgiveness and delivered him to the torturers (jailers) until he should pay back all his debt.
The king’s compassion motivated him to be merciful and forgiving. He represents God the Father, who always forgives our trespasses when we ask for mercy with a humble and contrite heart (Ps 51) – most notably in the sacrament of confession. “Merciful and gracious is the LORD, slow to anger, abounding in mercy.” (Ps 103:8) When we humble ourselves and express contrition for our sins, God awaits us with compassion. “Truly, the LORD is waiting to be gracious to you, truly, he shall rise to show you mercy; For the LORD is a God of justice: happy are all who wait for him!” (Is 30:18)
On the contrary, the king’s servant, who represents us, was not moved with compassion toward his fellow servant. This infuriated the Lord, who expected the servant to be merciful precisely since he expected him to be just. Why? For as much as the Lord rises to show us mercy because he is a God of justice, so must His servants because they are children of a just Lord. Indeed, this biblical passage certainly treats the subject of mercy, but what is not as recognizable is the theme of what many perceive as its opposite. Justice is the moral virtue that consists in giving their due to God and neighbor. The virtue of religion consists in rendering to the Lord what we justly owe him. Therefore, true justice toward God entails giving Him all praise and glory, love and adoration, honor and fidelity. Consequently, the Lord was infuriated because the wicked servant did not honor him by behaving as his king did – by practicing the same compassion that he received. A servant offers the greatest honor and glory to his king when he follows the king’s example and imitates his manner of speaking, behaving, and living. To do this is right and just.
Mercy and Justice are Complementary
Mercy and justice are not opposites but are complementary. True justice incorporates mercy and true mercy cannot exist without justice. Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his Catena Aurea–the Gospel of Matthew, noted, “Justice and mercy are so united, that the one ought to be mingled with the other; justice without mercy is cruelty; mercy without justice, profusion – hence He goes on to the one from the other.” In other words, we should not practice justice mercilessly but always remember that we are all sinners. To be sure, others will occasionally commit transgressions, wrongdoings or sins that offend us because human nature is weak and imperfect. Nevertheless, we ought to always give others their due with compassion, patience, and charity. However, mercy without justice is damaging and destructive –, particularly in the long run. Therefore, while we ought to be kind, nonjudgmental, and forgiving, we have a moral duty to speak the truth and to labor at all times for the sake of other people’s conversion, salvation, and sanctification.
As Christians, we must look after each other’s salvation for the glory of God just as Christ looked after ours. Consider that mercy encourages us to be kind, compassionate, and forgiving, but justice reminds us of the moral duty to practice all the spiritual works of mercy, including “admonishing the sinner.” Indeed, it is not a work of mercy but an act of injustice toward the other when we do not correct someone who publicly practices, supports, or promotes sinful behaviors. Mercy and justice demand that we humbly and courageously seek to understand, explain, defend, and live the truths of the Catholic Faith for the salvation of all. It is what the King of Kings would expect of His servants and our Heavenly Father of His children.