What is the difference between justice and mercy?

Father John A. Kiley

The workers in the vineyard who received the same wage after working all day in the Palestinian heat as those late-comers who worked only the last hour as the day began to cool might seem to have a legitimate grievance. Currently, an eight-hour day’s labor at the present minimum wage of $7.25 would net a payment of $58. Rare indeed would be the worker who stood uncomplainingly in line while witnessing a fellow laborer receive fifty-eight dollars for one hour’s work only to be handed the same amount for a full day’s work. Clearly the situation is unjust. And this is precisely Jesus’ point in relating this parable, unique to St. Matthew, about the laborers in the vineyard.

The Kingdom of God is not about justice; the Kingdom of God is about mercy. The parable’s lesson is contained in the landowner’s final words: “My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” The landowner did not cheat any one of the workers. No one received any less than was promised. The landowner did however choose to be more than generous to the last few workers and for no good reason except that he wanted to be inexplicably charitable. “Am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?” And indeed the landowner is free to do as he is inclined. He clearly meets all prior obligations (i.e., prevailing daily wage) but then chooses to exercise charity, generosity, largesse at his own discretion. This is the difference between justice and mercy. Justice is explicable. Justice can be figured out, estimated, projected. Mercy is inexplicable. Mercy cannot be figured out, exacted or calculated. Unlike justice, mercy cannot be earned. Mercy is entirely in the hands of the donor – who is free to do as one wishes with one’s own resources.

The landowner’s last words should not be over looked: “Are you envious because I am generous?” Most readers were no doubt raised in a moral universe where certain actions had logical consequences. Persons who said their prayers went to heaven. Persons who defied God went to hell. It was all a matter of justice – if not justice in this world, then justice in the next. A just society cannot tolerate any loose ends. A day’s work merits a pay’s pay. It is all very neat and everyone knows where he or she stands. But a society that knows only justice, a society that knows only a day’s wage for a day’s work, is scandalized by poverty, illness, inequality, ignorance, addiction, irresponsibility and indolence. Justice has no answer to society’s woes. Only generosity can step in and begin to alleviate the daily challenges that face humanity. Perhaps on the face of it, some persons do not deserve a break; some person might not merit the prevailing daily wage. But it is they especially — they whom the Bible labels sinners — that are the subjects of God’s merciful and unaccountable generosity.

It is always salutary to recall that Christ died for each one of us while we were still in our sins. Mankind did not convert and then God responded to man’s reformed state. No, we were quite in our sins and God mercifully took the first step toward redemption. The Jews were not an established people when God selected them as his own and gave them pride of place in salvation history. No, the Jews were a tiny nomadic tribe and then a people of slave laborers when God inexplicably choose them. The Apostles were not polished evangelists when Christ entered into their lives. The first Christians were not all scholars of the law when God favored them. These are all instances of God’s unmerited mercy, of God’s confounding generosity, of God’s humbling liberality.

Mercy is the most divine of God’s qualities — if such a phrase can be employed — because it is the most enigmatic of God’s attributes. Mercy truly goes beyond the human into the divine because it is unfathomable by human standards. God who is goodness itself loves the sinner. God who is all knowing embraces the ignorant. God who is all powerful supports the weak. God who is eternal is concerned about every second of human history. The mercy of God toward his fallible creatures should never evoke envy; it should instead elicit a similar generosity.