JUSTICE OR MERCY?

Have you ever had to appear before a judge in a court of law? I did, although I was more of a bystander. It happened like this: My brother, a friend, and I, all young teenagers, were alone at our farm in Pennsylvania one day when we heard a dog barking and saw it chase a deer out of the game reserve on our property. We immediately went for our guns to teach that dog a lesson, not realizing the lesson we would be taught. We (rather by brother and our friend because we had only two guns) shot the dog but, as luck or providence would have it, the expensive dog belonged to several city politicians who were hunting on the farm next door.


We were taken to court and there was no mercy. The judge, who turned out to be well known to the hunters, ruled that my brother and friend had to serve a week in a juvenile detention center. I was off the hook because I had no gun. (Incidentally, my brother later served 5 years on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Korea with distinction and was awarded several commendations.) We, of course, did not think the judgment fair, but we had no recourse.


Probably 10 years later, when Joice and I applied for visas to go to New Guinea, I needed a “police clearance” and went to Police Station in the town near our farm to obtain one. The policeman duly ruffled through his 3 x 5 cards and came upon my name. “Oh,” he laughed, as he signed the clearance form, “I see you had a little trouble with a dog one time.” Isn’t there a verse somewhere, “Be sure your sins will find you out”?


C.S. Lewis, in his book Reflections on the Psalms, tells how surprised he was to note that the Jews desired the judgments of God. He notes the difference between what Christians picture as justice, compared to how the Jewish people pictured it. We may have to appear in court against our will and have a fear of the judge and judgment. However, the Jew was anxious to appear before the judge because he wanted his case to be heard. As the parable of the unjust judge shows (Luke 18.1-5), the distraught woman was having a problem getting the judge to hear her case. She persisted because she knew if she could get her case before the court, she would be able to retain her property.


Bryan Stevenson in his book Just Mercy: A story of justice and redemption, tells how he has worked to overturn the injustice of our legal system, especially for many African Americans who cannot afford legal defense and representation, even when they are innocent. Stevenson, a black lawyer who graduated from Harvard law school, founded the Equal Justice Initiative (www.eji.org) and has worked tirelessly for the poor and misrepresented victims, often arguing cases before state supreme courts and even the US Supreme Court.


Both Lewis and Stevenson are appealing for justice in systems where it is often difficult to have the victim’s case heard. This will not be a problem for us when we stand before God in judgment. He will judge fairly and rightly, proclaiming justice instead of injustice. We cannot rely on mercy instead of justice, but we can be assured that God will combine the two because that is his nature.


The book of Judges relates how the Israelites kept worshipping idols and, as a result, God punished them. The scenario happened again and again: He let other nations attack the people until they returned to him, and he then chose special leaders (called judges) to lead the people. However, once the leader was gone, the people returned to their evil ways, and God would allow them to be defeated once again.


Some of the leaders or judges have their names recorded in the rollcall of faith in Hebrews chapter 11. There Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, and Samuel are mentioned, but why? What did they do that showed faith?


Gideon tore down the altar of Baal and defeated the Midianites. However, although “the Lord’s spirit took control of Gideon” (Judges 6.34), he still wanted a special sign (you know the story of the fleece) so that he could be sure of the Lord’s help. He went on to destroy the whole Midianite army and the Israelite people make him their king. Those exploits, and not because he “hand many wives and 70 sons” are why he is mentioned in Hebrews 11.


Jephthah was a “brave warrior,” the son of Gilead and he featured in wars with the Ammonites. Again, “the Lord’s spirit took control of Jephthah” (Judges 11.29) and he commanded the army of Gilead to fight the Ephriam tribe. And again, he is a mighty warrior and is listed in Hebrews 11.


Barak was also a mighty warrior, and with the help of Deborah (a prophet), he defeated Sisera, commander of an army. Deborah had said “’ Go! This is the day the Lord has given Sisera into your hands. Has not the Lord gone ahead of you?’ Barak obeyed and went down Mount Tabor, with ten thousand men following him.” (Judges 4.14). So, his name is also in Hebrews 11.


The mighty deeds of Samson, Samuel, and David are well known and they are also “heroes” mentioned in Hebrews. The judges or leaders and their stories are more about justice with power than about mercy. However, they are stories of how God dealt with the people and nation of Israel when they disobeyed him.


Such stories should make us wonder how God is dealing with our nation and how he may judge it in the future. Will we have leaders (judges) that will follow God and not idols? If we do, we will find mercy and justice. If not….?


Karl Franklin