The Cross and Justice

St. Thomas Aquinas said of justice, “If anyone would reduce it to the proper form of a definition, he might say that ‘justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will’” (Summa Theologiae II-II, 58, 1). This is good as far as it goes by way of human estimation and the use of reason. St. Thomas is, after all, expounding upon the cardinal virtue of justice, which is an acquired virtue. But the eternal and living Father in His wisdom has transposed justice, giving it a new meaning in loving obedience and a new “locus” of fulfillment beyond the reach of human estimation. The Scriptures bear this out wherein the most wise Father forever places judgment on all matters of justice in the hands of His Son, Jesus Christ, when He raised Him from the dead.

The Father has so arranged it that now all life must pass through the cross of His Son so that we, passing through His cross, would be severed from living as though this life is all there is. If this is the only world and all justice can and indeed must be fulfilled here according to our human estimation, then Jesus would not have stopped Peter from taking up the sword against Malchus (Jn. 18:10). If there was no other standard of justice than the one left to our assessment of what is due, then Jesus would have promptly fulfilled justice at the behest of His taunter on the cross, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us” (Lk. 23:39). If all justice must be fulfilled in this world wherein lies our final end and goal, then Jesus would have mounted a horse, gathered an army, and marched on Rome to throw off the yoke of the Romans and reestablish the nation of Israel in keeping with the covenant of old.

This is the temptation of Marxist ideology, namely, to live and pursue justice as though this world is all there is. It flies directly in the face of Christ upon the cross who is undeterred. If this is the only world and all justice is left to human discrimination, however wounded, then all means for the fulfillment of justice are on the table and Peter was justified in cutting off the ear of Malchus. If this is the only world and its governance is fully and finally left to us, and only us, then the criminal upon the cross was justified in berating Jesus. Listen carefully: the criminal was justified in berating Jesus. If this is the only world, then Jesus failed in His mission of visiting justice – like David of old – upon the enemies of Israel. If this is the only world and all means are on the table according to human estimations of justice, however flawed, then there were no atrocities committed during the 20th century in pursuit of the temporal paradise. There was no genocide, ethnic cleansing, imprisonments, terror campaigns against unarmed civilians, or weaponizing of food and water by mass starvation. All these were justified means for ushering in the new world foretold in the writings of Karl Marx.

Saint Paul wrote, “are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3) This means that the path to life passes through the cross of Christ which effectively severs us from living as though this world is all there is contra the Marxist seduction to the contrary. We do not forsake this world by admitting that there is another beyond it to which we are called by God and are accountable. Rather, we are called by Christ to pass through the way of the cross so that we in our bodies may be crucified and severed from a life dedicated to this world as though it’s all there is. All means are on the table when there is only the present life without the cross. In our comfort with the present world as the only one, we are lulled to sleep into believing that all means are justified in our pursuit of perceived goods; we may even consider ourselves justified in our anger and violence whenever we feel deprived of that to which we are entitled in our estimation of what is due to us, however flawed it may be.

All of this was crucified in Christ by the wisdom of the cross. Christ obeyed the will of the Father who in His wisdom placed the final satisfaction of all justice beyond the grave in raising Jesus from the dead. The prophet Jeremiah amid the “whisperings of many” who kept saying, “Terror on every side! Denounce! let us denounce him!” would then declare: “But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph” (Jer. 20:10-11). This proved true for Jeremiah who escaped death in the destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). But it didn’t prove true for the Christ, the Son of the living God, who suffered a most ignominious injustice and humiliating defeat this side of the grave only to later be fully vindicated in justice by the Father who raised Him from the dead.

Could this happen to us? Could we suffer so unjustly as did Jesus this side of the grave? Certainly – and many have, often unwillingly at the hands of their neighbor asserting his or her will to power in their estimation of what is due. Times like these are when we meet the scandal of the cross, wherein we enter into this arrangement of the Father and the outcome is not guaranteed. We can become embittered: “Is the LORD in our midst or not?” (Ex. 17:7) A lot is riding on our faith and our answer to the question put by Christ to the apostles at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mt. 16:15)

The cross of Christ means the destruction of worldly wisdom such as Marxist ideology by the expressed design and wisdom of the Father, who placed final and full vindication of temporal justice beyond the grave in raising Jesus from the dead. All means are not justified in trying to close the loop of justice. Karl Marx and those adopting his philosophy may not like that proposition, but in terms of the wisdom of God who saved the world in Christ crucified, their wisdom is folly and no wisdom at all (1 Cor. 3:19). By passing through the cross, it does not mean that we who believe in Christ are thereby called upon by the Father to give up all temporal pursuits in the fulfillment of justice. Jesus made this clear when he said: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt. 25:40) and Abraham declared, “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented” (Lk. 16:25).

Jesus here speaks from the perspective of crucified love or, more specifically, humanity that has passed through the obedience of love brought to fulfillment by Him upon the cross. To spend our lives prosecuting our estimations of justice this side of the grave, subsuming all judgment to ourselves, is utter foolishness by the expressed wisdom of the Father who placed the final determination of justice out of our reach in raising Jesus from the dead. This constitutes an intervention by God into human estimations of justice, laundering them through the cross. While it is not so flattering to our capacity for achieving justice, nevertheless Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mt. 26:11). That’s on us. Shall we, in our wisdom, dispute with the Father by adopting all means necessary for achieving our estimations of what is due in justice? Is there not already sufficient empirical evidence from the last century for how foolish such wisdom can be? We can only hope to awaken to the Father’s wisdom in His Son, Jesus, who testified to the scandal of the cross in the Garden when He prayed: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42).

Image: Serge Le Strat on Unsplash


Fr. Dan Pattee, TOR currently serves as a Parochial Vicar at St. Andrew Catholic Church in Fort Worth, Texas. He previously served for 29 years as a professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, OH and has been a priest for 35 years and a TOR Franciscan for 41 years.

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