July 20, 2014
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Wisdom 12:13, 16-19
If God were cruel, we would be in a tough spot. Sometimes people lose faith in God because they think he is and that’s not a pleasant notion. This Sunday’s reading from the Book of Wisdom 12:13, 16-19 reflects on God’s actions in history and shows us that even when he is most fiercely just, he is still the God of mercy.
Wisdom 12 briefly retells the story of God’s judgment on the Canaanites. It reflects on their idolatrous and “detestable practices” (12:4), which included child sacrifice. God decided to judge Canaan and eliminate its religion from the Promised Land, but instead of inflicting punishment right away, God waits. He gives even the most disastrously corrupt culture “a chance to repent” (12:10).
Does Might Make Right?
One line in Wisdom 12:16 could give us the wrong impression, that might makes right. The line reads: “For your might is the source of justice” (Wis 12:16 NAB). It would be easy to think that simply because God has all the power then whatever he wants is “just,” that he’s basically a big bully. But that’s not what Wisdom is trying to convey. Rather, his power, his strength is the origin, the beginning, the source of all justice, all righteousness, all goodness. God’s power and his goodness accord so well with one another, that they are held together in who he is. We can even say that “God is justice,” and “God is strength.” His will is always in accord with justice.
Justice and Mercy
One would not expect a reflection on the destruction of the Canaanites to highlight God’s mercy, but that’s exactly what Wisdom does. Justice is the strong note when it comes to judgment, but this text shows to us that the emphasis in God’s relation with human beings is always on mercy. Wisdom describes him as “lenient” and judging with “clemency.” God waits some four hundred years before bringing judgment on the Canaanites (Gen 15:16), allowing time for repentance. By his actions, God teaches us how he wants us to act toward others.
God’s Kind of Teaching
The best kind of teachers always lead by example. And in the case of God’s mercy and justice toward the Canaanites, he is no different. The very power of God actually makes him merciful since he does not need to shore up his self-confidence with random acts of showing off, but only to set in order the minds of men who don’t believe in his power (12:17). God teaches us about his mercy by what he does: “And you taught your people, by these deeds” (12:19). Surprisingly, the lesson of his deeds is a paradox: “that those who are just must be kind.” We often think of justice and mercy as opposites, but God’s actions show that they really do go together.
“Kindness” sounds like a wimpy virtue, like “niceness” or “goody-two-shoe-ness.” The Greek word which underlies “kind” in our translation is philanthropos. That’s an easy one if you remember Philadelphia or anthropology, or better yet, philanthropy. Philanthropos is “love of man” or “love of mankind.” God’s deeds of justice and mercy reveal that if we are to be just, we must love mankind. So mercy, love, and kindness, shape the actions of the righteous, not just rule-following.
It is too easy for us to put up barriers to others, to adopt strict rules, to operate an economy of exclusion and shut out those whose sinfulness is all too visible. But Jesus reminds that we are not the judges (Matt 7:1). He’s the only judge and his example of clemency, lenience, and mercy, show us that we are to similarly keep the door open, reach out, love others, forgive them their faults (and be cognizant of our own). Personal righteousness or justice is about loving others like God does. While philanthropy includes giving money, the true philanthropist not only gives money, but actually loves people.