Good Friday: Do I want justice or do I want mercy?

(Good Friday, year B)

The front page story of today’s Vancouver Sun describes the horrible terrorist attack in Kenya. Masked gunman killed 147 university students simply because they were Christian. The media has interviewed many people, victims’ relatives, politicians and members of the general public. They all express a desire for one thing: justice. This action was terribly wrong. This is not the way the world is supposed to be. Spoken or unspoken, those interviewed and all of us following the news ask the same questions, “Who is going to pay for this? Who will be held responsible?” Whether the hurt is grievous, like a terrorist attack, or minor, as when a friend insults us, whenever someone wrongs us our inclination is to want justice.

When we are the guilty party, however, things are very different. For example, at the end of one semester at university I become swamped with exams and assignments and completely forgot to do one essay. By the time I remembered it, the deadline had passed. I quickly finished the assignment in a day and went to the professor to personally hand it in. As I walked to his office, my mind was racing with excuses. There was too much to do! The due date was unclear! My computer crashed! Everything in me wanted mercy. But the truth was, I messed up. I was late and deserved to be punished by having marks deducted from my grade. What a difference in my response. When someone hurts me, I want justice. I want them to apologize, preferably in public, and make up for it. However, when I am guilty, I beg for mercy. I want to say sorry quietly and have my transgression quickly swept under the rug.

In his letters, St. Paul vividly describes the grave situation we find ourselves in because of our sins. “You were dead in your transgressions and sins… we were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:1,3). Let this reality sink in. We have all sinned, hurting others and destroying the order and goodness of God’s world. We all deserve punishment, not mercy. St. Paul explains that if justice were carried out, we would all be found guilty and sentenced to the ultimate punishment of eternal death. This is the hopeless situation sin leaves us in. We do not deserve mercy. We deserve to be held accountable for our sins.

But here we come to the reason why we call this Friday “good”. In the darkness of sin, the light of God’s mercy and love unexpectedly breaks through. When we look at Jesus hanging from the Cross, we realize that we did not get what we deserved! God gave us mercy, not justice! Justice looks to hold the wrongdoer accountable, following through with the appropriate punishment or consequences. However, in His infinite mercy, God chose to take the punishment for our sins upon Himself. He paid our fine. He suffered in our place.  “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins ... by his stripes we were healed.” (Is 53:5ff). We did not get what we deserved.

Mercy is not meant to end at the Cross. On the Cross, Jesus unleashed a fountain of mercy that is meant to flow in and through us to those around us. God is merciful to us so that we can be merciful to others. Each one of us has been hurt. We have all been insulted or betrayed by friends, family or coworkers. Some hurts seem impossible to forgive. Jesus knows our pain because He suffered the same. Mercy does not pretend no wrong was committed. Rather, when we are merciful, we choose to cancel the debt others incurred against us. In doing so, we break the power these hurts hold over us and become free to love as Christ calls us to do.

Does mercy end at the Cross for you? Is there someone in your life that you cannot forgive? Is there some hurt you cannot let go of? Are there people in your life from whom you demand justice and stubbornly refuse to show them mercy? What might this say about your understanding of what Jesus has done for you on the Cross?

Today when you look at the Cross, think of one person who has hurt you. Look at the Cross and soak in the unfathomable mercy God has shown you. We did not get what we deserved! In view of the Cross ask yourself, what do I want for this person who has harmed me? Do I want justice or do I want mercy?