God's Divine Justice and Mercy
by Rev. Robert Wagner
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus said to the crowds: "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. And this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day."
The Commemoration for the Faithful Departed — more commonly known as All Souls Day — falls on a Sunday this year. The church offers the option to use any of the readings it sets aside for Masses for the deceased, one of which is a beautiful passage from the sixth chapter of John's Gospel. In it, we hear Jesus say, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (cf. Jn 6:40). As Christians, this is the origin of our joy, for our Father in heaven desires that we gain eternal life with Him in heaven.
This passage is also a contradiction for those who only see God through the lens of His justice. Such a view offers a distortion of God: He creates us, gives us a list of commands, and then rewards us solely based on how well we follow those commands. In this view, God is limited to being a disinterested judge, coldly calculating each one of our actions in order to weigh whether we will enter heaven when we die. In contrast, this passage from St. John offers a more complete understanding of our heavenly Father. He is not distant and calculating. He loves us and desires our salvation that we might spend eternity in loving union with Him . In that love He offers us mercy, forgiving our sins when we are contrite of heart and willing to convert our lives.
Of course, we can also make the mistake of going to the other extreme by ignoring the justice of God by only recognizing His mercy. With this view, the words of Jesus in this Gospel are interpreted to mean that, because God desires that all of us get to heaven, everyone does, no matter how he or she acted while on earth, including whether contrition and conversion were part of their lives. Such a view must ignore Christ's teaching about hell and the wide road that leads there (e.g., Mt 7:13), but even ignoring the word of God would still leave us to oppose our natural understanding of justice. We expect each other to receive what we deserve, so we expect one who freely chooses to live an unrepentant life of selfishness and grave sin would not merit the same as another who freely chooses a life of continued contrition and conversion while seeking to serve God and neighbor.
Ultimately, our understanding of God must include both justice and mercy. God is not an uncaring judge, nor is He blind to good and evil. No, He offers us perfect truth and love concerning our actions on earth. As humans, we cannot presume to know the mind of God, especially concerning our salvation and the salvation of others. We cannot judge as God does, for our knowledge of ourselves and others is limited, but God looks into the hearts of men (e.g., cf. Lk 16:15). Nor can we love as God loves; our selfishness stains the purity of our love, but God is perfect love (cf. 1 Jn 4:8).
On All Souls Day, the church prayerfully intercedes for and remembers those who have gone before us but who are not yet in the heavenly presence of the Holy Trinity. These are the souls in purgatory. Purgatory itself is a combination of God's divine justice and mercy. His justice does not permit those with hearts made impure by their free choice of sin to come directly before the perfect purity of the Holy Trinity. Yet His mercy allows for those same souls to have a means of purification to prepare them to come face to face with God, and having been purified, enter more fully into the mysteries of His love. May the grace of Jesus Christ impel us always to pray for those who have passed from this life, trusting that in God’s mercy He will purify the just that they may enter into His joy. We pray for ourselves, too, that we may be numbered among the elect and enter into that same joy one day.
Our limited knowledge does not allow us the certainty of knowing which of the faithful departed are enjoying the fullness of heaven, aside from the canonized saints recognized by the church. Therefore, out of justice and mercy, we pray that those who have gone before us will soon be granted the eternal rest and the perpetual light of heaven.
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