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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Justice of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
It may seem strange that we should be reflecting on the justice of God as one of the divine attributes specially revealed by the coming of Christ. We may have become so accustomed to associate divine justice with the Old Testament and divine mercy with Christ in the New Testament that to bring up the subject of justice as distinctive as a divine attribute since the coming of Christ calls for a lot of explanation. Certainly Christ revealed depths of meaning in divine mercy that was simply unknown in all previous generations. But we need to see and better understand what we mean by the justice of God.
Our plan is to reflect on four areas of our subject. First, what is justice? Then, how was the justice of God revealed under the Old Law? Then, how has God's justice been revealed since the coming of Christ as found in the New Testament? And finally, what are some very painfully practical implications for our spiritual life?
First, what is justice? Justice is the virtue by which a person gives whatever is due, due first to God, due to others, and unexpectedly, even due to oneself. The heart of justice therefore is to give what is due. I have something coming, others then have the obligation in justice to give me what is mine. Justice, then, implies that someone has a claim, call it a right, to something. If I am just I respect that right and then have the corresponding duty to give what is due.
I dare say, one of the least realized aspects of justice on which we shall mainly focus in this meditation, is the justice of God. Right before anyone else in the created world, the one who has the first and the primary rights is God. The ancient prophets could not have been clearer: God owes it to himself to demand what he as God deserves from his creatures.
If we were to summarize the meaning of divine justice in the Old Law, it would be very simply synthesized in the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue is a summary of the divine justice. This God demands that his own rights be recognized and by his rational creatures, lived up to, and then that the rights of other people be recognized and correspondingly practiced.
The first three commandments, as we Catholics divide the Decalogue, correspond exactly to the justice that God demands of his rational creatures to be practiced toward him. Over the centuries the Church has coined a word that perfectly identifies the justice that we must practice toward God, it is the virtue of religion. What is religion? Religion is the justice that his rational creatures owe to their Creator. God has certain rights and he cannot, there is no way that God cannot demand of his rational creatures what is identified by the first three commandments of the Decalogue.
The first commandment of divine justice which is the first practice of the virtue of religion is to adore him alone; no one, no other creature dare be honored or worshiped or adored as God. The one creature who is in constant competition with God for demanding the kind of attention of admiration and, though we hesitate using the word, adoration which is due to God alone is ourselves. Egoism is not just a word in the vocabulary, it is, on the premises we are here describing, the opposite of that monotheism which God commanded in the first precept of the Decalogue.
The justice of God demands, God requires it just because he is God, that not only should he alone be honored and worshipped as the one true God, but the first one toward whom we should direct our thoughts and express our words is he. In the simplest words at my disposal, prayer is the obligation of justice towards God demanded by God in the second commandment of the Decalogue. It is not only, as expressed negatively in the words of the Decalogue, not to use "the name of the Lord your God in vain". The positive precept underlying that prohibition is that the first one toward whom we are obliged to direct our speech, our words, our language, the first one with whom we are obliged to engage in conversation is God, otherwise known as prayer. How revealing the second commandment is of the built-in tendency we have to fail to give God what is his due by primarily directing our thoughts and our words to him. It is not a pious afterthought. Most human beings most of the time are talking to themselves. We shudder to use the language: praying to oneself, engaging in rapt, sometimes almost mystical soliloquy.
God commands us in strict justice that we are to honor and worship him not only as private individuals, but in the three commandment he makes sure that he makes clear our obligation in justice to honor and worship him as a society. The actual wording of the third precept of the Decalogue "to keep holy the Sabbath day" is only one facet of what by now both the Jewish prophets over the centuries after Moses and the Catholic Church in the centuries since Christ have told us. The third commandment is an obligation in justice which not only individual persons owe God, but society owes God. We are to honor and worship God not only as individuals; we are obliged to adore God and honor him as our God as members of the human family. Why is it a grave obligation binding under mortal sin to attend Mass on Sundays? Because God requires in justice to himself corporate worship from his people. And for Christians the most perfect worship we can offer our God is to reenact that perfect act of adoration by which the Son of God sacrificed himself as Man to the heavenly Father and that sacrificial adoration being reenacted in the sacrifice of the Mass.
The one word that summarizes the last seven commandments is the word morality. There are two obligations which Yahweh laid on his people, and not only on the ancient Israelites but on all human beings until the end of time: to practice first religion - justice toward himself and then morality - justice toward our fellowmen.
By honoring those in authority, that is sheer justice. There can be no society without someone in authority. The Greeks had a word to describe a society without authority; they spelt it 'chaos.' No wonder in so many parts of the western world there is chaos! From childhood, the authority of parents is not even recognized, let alone respected, by so many people.
Every human being has a right to his own life and bodily integrity. The fifth precept of the Decalogue is a precept of justice, that other people have a right to their lives whether they are born or unborn. Every innocent human being has a right, in the strictest justice, to his own life and bodily integrity; hence the fifth commandment.
Every human being has a right to the use of his procreative faculties according to the will of God. The reproductive faculties are to be used for reproduction. That is a commandment in justice. So millions are telling God to mind his own divine business: "My body is my own." Pleasure must be enjoyed according to the will of God. To indulge pleasure for the sake of pleasure is a crime against the Almighty.
Everyone has a right to the possessions that God has given him, whether much or little. Hence we must respect the possessions of others. Private property has long gone out of existence because of our understandable concern for what we call social justice.
When we speak with people they have a right to know what is on our minds. Circumstances may call for my not saying anything, smiling or just keeping mum. But if I speak I must tell the truth. Unless we can trust that when people talk to us they are telling us what is on their minds, society would be destroyed.
All of this is locked up in the Old Testament understanding of divine justice. And it is plenty. The books of the Old Testament are filled with God's insistence on living up to the Decalogue: verse after verse about the punishments that he visits on those who refuse to practice the justice that he as God demands of his creatures especially of his chosen people. By actual count, the single word 'just', referring to God and his faithful people, occurs seventy-seven times in the Psalms alone. And the word 'justice' in the Psalms alone - one little piece of the Old Testament - occurs fifty-three times, which makes a total of 130 times. Let's have no doubt that God wants us to practice justice. The surest way to teach anybody is to have them sing what you want them to remember. Because the Psalms were meant to be sung, we might almost say the Psalms are the Old Testament revelation of God's justice put to song.
Now the justice of God as revealed by Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ said he did not come to destroy or do away with the law or the prophets. In other words, the essence of the Old Law in terms of the justice of God remains intact. However, Christ explained he did not come to do away with the Law, and for our purpose, the law of divine justice, he rather, he said, came to perfect, to develop, to bring to completion. A panoramic subject.
What are some of the features of the Son of God's bringing to fulfillment the Old Testament revelation about the justice of God? I have numbered some of the ways in which the Son of God become Man elevated the meaning and the implications of divine justice from the Old to the New Law.
Christ revealed that what God mainly wants of us (he also wants our external manifestation or practice, the ritual, if you please, of our worship and our adoration of the one true God) is especially internal worship, internal adoration. We are not to stop at bending the knees of our bodies; but what God mainly wants is the bending of the knees of our souls, bending the knees of our minds by believing in what he revealed, even though what he revealed is beyond the comprehension of our created intellects.
What God wants is the bending of the knees of our wills in obedience not only but also like in the Old Testament. There were hundreds of external precepts, minute details which, as we know, the Pharisees canonized. What he wants is that we bend our wills to the last and the least sign of his divine will in the working out of his sometimes very mysterious and often very painful entrance into our lives. "Lord, I don't get it; I don't see it, and humanly speaking, I don't want it; but I believe it is your will. Pardon me for saying this Lord, but I don't find this enjoyable." He says, "So what! Bend your will."
How has the justice of God been elevated by the coming of Christ? By universalizing the meaning of divine justice. The Old Testament was meant for the chosen people. What Christ came to teach is that the justice that God wants to be recognized in himself and responded to by his creatures and the practice of justice in our dealing with others is not only to be done by a small quotary, but by the whole human race. This is one of the principal themes of the evangelist St. Luke and Luke's master, St. Paul.
Christ elevated the justice of God from that justice of God revealed in the Torah by revealing that God is just in not only punishing those who sin by failing to respect his rights or by failing to respect the rights of their neighbor, but God is also just in rewarding those who respect his divine rights and who recognize and act on their recognition of the rights of their fellowmen.
If there is one thing that Jesus Christ revealed which practically identifies Christianity in contrast to the Judaism of the Old Law it is what we call merit. Meaning what? That because we have a free will, if we use that free will in accordance with God's will, respecting his rights, respecting the rights of others, he will reward us beyond our wildest dreams, and not only in the present life but for all eternity in the life to come.
How has Christ elevated the practice of justice beyond what it had been revealed in the Old Law? Christ revealed - nothing like it in any of the books of the Old Testament - Christ revealed that there is an eternal punishment coming to those who disobey his laws, and there is eternal happiness awaiting those who are faithful to the laws of God. It took the Son of God become Man to reveal what had never, I don't say in any shape or form, been known before Christ's coming. But the clear unqualified revelation of eternal punishment and eternal reward was not made known until God became Man.
There is one more level to the raising of the meaning of justice in the New Law beyond anything conceived or revealed in the Old Testament. What did Christ reveal? Christ revealed that the primary commandment that we are to observe in practicing justice towards God and justice toward our neighbor is the commandment of charity. The moment we say this we open up vistas never dreamt of before the coming of Christ.
Unfortunately, how pitifully in so many peoples' lives, not excluding many who call themselves Christians, a distinction is made between justice and charity. Of course justice is not charity and charity is not justice. But when God became Man and told us to practice justice towards God and justice toward our neighbor, he identified our practice of justice towards God by saying we are obliged to love God with our whole heart, our whole mind, our whole strength, and with all our soul. And the justice we are to practice toward our neighbor is a commandment. We are commanded to love our neighbor. And Christ went even further; he even described how we are to love one another. We are to love one another as he, who is God, when he became Man, has loved us."
In one sense the most consoling, in another sense the most terrifying single chapter in all of God's revelation is the twenty-fifth chapter of St. Matthew's gospel. Read it and pray. At the last day we are going to be judged. That's justice. Judged how? Just on our loving others. We are going to be judged on the degree to which with our minds we have recognized other peoples' needs and with our will have responded to those needs.
A few practical implications. Everything in our faith finally depends on our understanding that when Christ came into the world he explained that the justice of God demands that we love him with our whole heart, and the justice of God demands that we love our neighbor as he, who is God become Man, has been loving us.
Charity is a law, it is not an option. God rewards us mainly on our practice of charity towards him and of charity towards others. You name the virtue and we need it: patience, humility, chastity, obedience. But the one virtue which Christ made sure none of us would misunderstand is the virtue of charity. We shall finally by judged and rewarded or punished on whether we have practiced or not practiced the virtue of charity.
We have a free will. Every word in that sentence should be emphasized. We have a free will. If we want to love, we will love. If we do not want to love, we do not love. We have a free will. It is not a hypothesis or a theory or a supposition, it is a fact. And we have a free will, which means we can choose. And the most, humanly speaking, incredible power of our freedom is the capacity we have to say no to the Almighty. And we have a free will. It is a power we have. Our peace in this life and our happiness in the life to come depends on one syllable: will.
Forty-two years in the priesthood have taught me many things. But the one thing I am still learning, in the last analysis the most important power on earth is the human will. All that God demands of this human will is that that will be subordinated to his will. How? By loving him and by loving others out of love for him.
All the lip service in prayers we recite, all the Hours of the Liturgy, the singing of hymns, fine. But we shall obtain grace from God only if and in the measure that our wills are surrendered to his divine will. He will give us grace. God knows we need it. But we hold the key to unlocking the treasure of God's goodness by our surrendering our will to his.
"Lord Jesus Christ, you are our God become Man. You tell us to love you with our whole heart, all our strength and soul and mind. You deserve, you have a right to our love. You tell us to love others as you have loved us. Give us the light to see the justice of your commands and the strength to fulfill them. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
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