Mercy versus Justice? A Maryknoll Reflection

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By Dan Moriarty

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32

A staff member of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns recalls violence in Guatemala as he explores the theme of mercy in the Mass readings for the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

We are told again and again that God is merciful, but how can we practice the kind of radical mercy God teaches us? In today’s readings, we see God not merely forgiving sinners, but seeking them out and celebrating together with them.

Moses, in the passages following the first reading, actually calls on some of his people to carry out vengeful mass violence against others who were unfaithful – a far cry from the mercy he asks of and is granted by God. In the second reading and in the Gospel, we see that God seeks closeness with those who sin against God and God’s people, and even calls them to positions of prominence among Christ’s followers.

Most notable among the tax collectors with whom Jesus dines is Matthew, whom he calls to be one of his twelve apostles. God calls Paul (then called Saul) from the life of a “blasphemer and a persecutor” to join the apostles in spreading the Gospel. Matthew and Paul, both Jews living under Roman occupation, were participating in Roman oppression of Jewish people when they were invited to prominent positions among Jesus’ followers.

Like Moses, or the Pharisees and scribes or the older brother of the Prodigal Son, we may find such mercy impossibly difficult to muster.

In the Church, we tend to speak of “justice and peace” as if they are one thing. But often, the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of peace exist in tension with one another. Peace for some may mean letting go of injustices in the interest of ceasing conflict. Justice, or holding perpetrators of violence to account, may prove a stumbling block to peace.

How does Christ’s message of radical mercy – of seeking out and embracing sinners who have oppressed others – allow for both justice and peace?

In Guatemala, where I recently visited Maryknoll sisters and affiliates, 36 years of armed conflict were followed by a successful period of transitional justice. Survivors of violence and horrific human rights abuses were able to tell truths that had long been hidden by those in power, and perpetrators, including heads of state and military leaders, were put in prison. But today, an alliance of corrupt politicians and oligarchs have systematically taken over all branches of government, and the transitional justice process has been halted.

Human rights defenders and the prosecutors and judges who held human rights violators to account have been criminalized – falsely accused of crimes – and many have been forced to seek asylum abroad. A United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission was shut down after 12 years of successful work. Now, a proposed amnesty law would release all those who have been convicted as part of the post-war transitional justice process, placing those who testified against them at risk of continued violence.

Guatemalan officials promote the proposed amnesty law as serving the cause of peace by moving on from past conflict. In other cases, amnesty laws are often promoted by church groups in terms of Christian mercy. But would the proposed Guatemalan law really reflect the kind of mercy Jesus modeled?

In asking Matthew to host him for dinner, and then to be one of his apostles, Jesus found a creative way of offering the tax collector a path away from corruption and toward solidarity. On the road to Damascus, Jesus implored Saul to stop persecuting him, and Saul then earned the trust of the other disciples by his faithfulness to Jesus’ call.

Mercy and impunity are not the same thing, nor are nonviolence and passivity. Christ was never vengeful. He rejected punitive justice. But his mercy never sacrificed truth. Christian nonviolence seeks to interrupt and transform violence.

In South Africa, Rwanda, Chile, Cambodia, Guatemala, and in Native- and African American communities in the United States, survivors of historic, systemic violence are seeking their own paths toward wholeness and peace with their oppressors. Each community is different, and perhaps not all will achieve Christ’s radical mercy. But only by allowing the truth to be told and by showing mercy first to the victims of violence will peace with justice be possible.

Dan Moriarty, a lifelong missioner, is program coordinator of Maryknoll’s Pathways to Peace.

To read other Scripture reflections published by the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, click here.

Featured image: Dan Moriarty (left) is pictured with Maryknoll Sisters Silvia Pacheco and Jane Buellesbach and Affiliates Rosa Beatriz, Claudia Samayoa and an unnamed affiliate, July 27, 2022. (Courtesy Dan Moriarty/MOGC)

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Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, based in Washington, D.C., is a resource for Maryknoll on matters of peace, social justice and integrity of creation, and brings Maryknoll’s mission experience into U.S. policy discussions. Visit