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Surpassing Human Justice: Enthroning Divine Justice



by Fr. George Morelli

"Compassion and justice in one soul are as a man adoring God and idols in one house." -St. Isaac of Syriai

The cry for "justice" is heard around the world. But what "justice" is cried out for? A casual overview of the media clearly indicates that the cry for worldly justice is very often accompanied by cries for retaliation, retribution and vengeance. Such 'justice' is often attributed to third world nations or countries that have been in constant conflict. For example, a British newspaper article headline about a recent Libyan incident read, "The car was armoured like a tank. But that wasn't enough to save Gaddafi's son Khamis when the rebels took their vengeance."ii History books recount incidents of murderous atrocities against individuals, nations and entire peoples, committed in the name of revenge, since the dawn of recorded time.

Is retribution limited to third world countries? Roman Catholic Keith Cardinal O'Brien, Archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland, would say of a modern Western, supposedly enlightened country:

In Scotland over many years we have cultivated through our justice system what I hope can be described as a 'culture of compassion', On the other hand, there still exists in many parts of the US, if not nationally, an attitude towards the concept of justice which can only be described as a 'culture of vengeance'." iii

The Church Fathers on Worldly Justice

St. Isaac of Syria was able to define worldly justice with precision. As quoted by Alfeyev (2000), St. Isaac tells us: "Justice is equality on the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves. . . ." However, worldly or earthly justice enlivened by goodness beauty and goodness, devoid of retaliation, retribution and vengeance can attract mankind to the Divine. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us:

Earth in the world of the senses corresponds in the world of the mind to justice -- a state that begets all the inner principles of created things according to their kind, that in spirit shares out the gifts of life to each thing in an equitable way, and that is by its own free choice rooted and established in beauty and goodness. (Philokalia II)

The Church Fathers knew that beauty and goodness could lead us to God. (Morelli, 2010b). St. Symeon the New Theologian, in his Hymn of Divine Love, (McGuckin, 2001) prays: "Master, how could I describe the vision of your face? How could I ever speak of the ineffable contemplation of your Beauty? How could mere words contain One whom the World could never contain?" Then Saint Symeon answers his questions as part of his prayer: ". . . suddenly You appeared from on high, shining greater than the Sun itself, shining brilliantly from the heavens down into my heart .. . . . What intoxication of the Light! What swirlings of fire!"

St. Maximus the Confessor makes clear that living a Christ-like life goes beyond the worldly meaning of justice:

He who is living the life in Christ has gone beyond the righteousness of both the Law and nature. This St. Paul indicated when he said, 'For in Christ Jesus there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (cf. Gal 5: 6). By circumcision he meant righteousness according to the Law; by uncircumcision he hinted at natural justice or equity. (Philokalia II)

Justice in Sacred Scripture: The Old Testament

At first glance it would appear that God Himself unites justice and vengeance. There is little doubt that, taken by itself, the God of the Old Testament appears to be a 'God of requital.'  Take, for example, Moses’ record of God's description of Himself:  "I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me. . . ." (Ex 20: 5). Among the ordinances God set before His people, as Moses tells us,  is that which has been called the famous law of retaliation (lex talionis): "If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.“(Ex 21: 23-25)  Moses himself says of God: "The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generation." (Nu 14: 18).   

Old Testament Scripture contains some of the most brutal descriptions of retaliatory justice. Among the psalms (136: 9), composed when the Jews were held captive (called the Babylonian Exile) by the Persians, we read: "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"  God even orders the annihilation of an entire nation. Samuel tells Saul of the Lord's command: "'.I will punish what Am'alek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Am'alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'" (1Kg 15: 2-3). 

How do we answer critics who claim God is a God of brutality and not mercy? The answer comes from the Old Testament Scriptures, but only  in part, and quite veiled, as told to us by King David: "Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness [justice] and peace will kiss each other." (Ps 84: 10).  The Church Fathers knew well that the Old Testament Scriptures cannot be understood without reference to the full revelation of God to mankind, given to us by the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ made incarnate.

Consider Christ's own words as told to us by St. Luke (24: 44-45): "Then he said to them, "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. . . ." St. Paul (1Cor 2: 14) comments on those who attempt to interpret Sacred Scripture apart from Christ and His Church: "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned".

St. Nikitas Stithatos comments on Our Lord' words and St. Paul's understanding by consideration that those who lack compassion, that is to say mercy is a barrier to orthodox comprehension of Sacred Scripture:

. . . they exhibit no godly fruit - love for God and for their fellow-men - no joy in the midst of poverty and tribulation, no peace of soul, no deeply-rooted faith, no all-embracing self control. Neither do they experience compunction, tears, humility or compassion [emphasis mine], but they are filled altogether filled with conceit and arrogance. Hence they are totally incapable of plumbing the depth of the Spirit (c.f. Luke 24:45). . . . (Philokalia IV)

The mind of the Church is the mind of Christ. Without being spiritual by being  united to Christ and His Church, nothing truthful can be considered as veridical of the Holy Spirit (Morelli, 2010c). St. Nikitas points out:

Divine Scripture is to be interpreted spiritually and the treasures it contains are revealed only through the Holy Spirit to the spiritual. Hence the unspiritual man cannot receive the revelation of these treasures. [As previously quoted: "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" “But consider also this last following observation made by St. Paul that I now quote here:  "But we have the mind of Christ."  (1Cor 2: 14,16)]. . . .He possesses only the material spirit of this world, full of jealousy and envy, of strife and discord; and for this reason he thinks it foolish to enquire into the sense and meaning of the written word [as understood by Christ and His Church]. . .  Unable to understand that everything in Divine Scripture concerning things Divine and human is to be interpreted spiritually, he mocks those who do interpret in this way. . .he twists and distorts their words. (Philokalia IV )iv

It is the New Testament that makes anything in the Old Testament comprehensible, in so far as the Divinity is concerned.  St. Peter of Damaskos tells us:

Just as the term 'amen', which St. Luke translates as 'truly' (c.f. Lk 9: 27 ["But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God."], is a stable and decisive word endorsing what comes before it, so moral judgment is a stable and decisive form of intellection enabling us to cleave to the truth. The word 'amen' affirms the permanence of the new grace conferred by Christ; hence it is not found in the New Testament at all, since the Old Testament is but a prefiguration. In the New Testament, however, it is used everywhere because this testament will endure for ever and through all the ages. (Philokalia III)

The words of Jesus provides understanding  of spiritual development

While not specifically talking about God's mercy, Jesus does provide an understanding of the different stage of spiritual development between the people of the Old Covenant and those who would be able to respond to His call to become His people of His New Covenant. Consider the verbal encounter with the Pharisees who questioned Jesus about divorce.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, `For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder." They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Mt 19: 3-8)

Jesus’ statement that at the time of Moses His people were 'hard of heart' can be used  toward comprehending God seemingly encouraging the taking of human life. Taking a historical perspective shows that the value of life and standard of conduct regarding violence was very different in the ancient world than today. This is certainly not to say that there is not abhorrent violence in today's world. However, it could be maintained that in times past violence was much more the prevailing norm among all peoples than it is today.

Historical interpretation

My observation of history has not gone unnoticed by psychologists.v Stephen Pinker (2007) recently pointed out:  "But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler." I will posit, even if some, like Pinker, would not endorse, and in fact entirely reject my position, that the greatest moral influence on contemporary culture, what Pinker terms "modernity," is the orthodox understanding of the teachings of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. Pinker's (2011) sweeping generalizations of history and his lack of understanding of the true teachings of Christ versus the debasement of Christ's teachings by those who erroneously 'called themselves Christians' have  greatly  influenced the mistaken  interpretation of the true teachings of Christ and His true Orthodox-Catholic Church. Contributing to this was the  abasement of Christian practice and true comprehension of Christ's teachings, lamented  by none other than St. John Chrysostom himself in the 4th Century, by those who were forced to become Christian by the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine, and who thus became Christian in name only. (Morelli, 2009). Such degradation of comprehension and behavior on the part of those who labeled themselves Christian certainly influenced the historical record.  This historical-religious myopia, however,  prevents Pinker from understanding and interpreting Christ's true teaching and thus the  profound influence of Christianity on the moral development of

The Decalogue, given to Moses by God Himself, includes the prohibition not to kill: "Thou shalt not kill." (Ex 20: 13).  But clearly this prohibition, and the value of life, was ill-understood by His "Chosen People." Unfortunately, this lack of understanding continues even to the present age and to far more peoples. The prevalence of abortion, capital punishment, executions, genocide, torture such as waterboarding and the like, reported daily by the media, attest to this. However, those who truly understand the "Mind of Christ and His Church" (Morelli, 2011) know the actuality of the value of all life. Of note is the recent call for a "moral alliance" among the Apostolic Churches, (Alfeyev, 2005) that is to say, the Churches that trace their teachings and their bishops and priests back to the Apostles. Morelli (2010c) writes: "In this spirit, courageous moral decisions by our bishops, priests and laity in the face of secularism, moral relativism and political and religious correctness, should be encouraged." 

God has revealed Himself to us in stages

An overview of the spiritual history of mankind indicates that God revealed Himself to mankind in stages. We certainly cannot think of the ancient Hebrew people themselves, with whom God made His First Covenant, as somehow more 'moral' than the other barbarian peoples that surrounded them. (Smith-Christopher, 2005).  It would appear that the only criteria God had for making His First Covenant with the Hebrew people was that Abram, the leader of his tribal group, acknowledged that the Godhead was One, singular and Supreme.  It was for their acknowledgement that God is "one," that Abraham and His descendents were Chosen. They were certainly not chosen for their morality, in which mayhem and killing were normative. 

The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Syria applied to God in the Old Testament.

There is another factor in the limited understanding of the true God by the writers of the Old Testament Scripture. It is that they would understand God and His message in the frame of reference, the cognitive set, shaped by the brutal culture in which they lived. As Pinker (2011) notes, "The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape and murder. . . warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Woman are bought, sold and plundered like sex toys." Even when one of the writers conveyed the words of God, they did so only at the level of their own comprehension.

The Psychology of Personal Constructs

The seminal work of George Kelly (1955) provides insight into the cognitive processes that would underlie such an interpretation. Kelly states: "a person's processes are psychologically channelized by the ways in which he anticipates events." Kelly goes on to point out that the way events are anticipated by individuals is based on their experience; the commonalities in which they construe events are based on their shared experiences. He states that "to the extent that one person employs  a construction system similar to that employed by another, his psychological processes are similar to those of the other person." He goes on to say that such processes influence the social processes involving other individuals. The way we understand what others are doing is based on the common perception shared by all.

Jesus alone reveals God as He really is

The ethos, spirit, or  true meaning of God's words would not be revealed until the coming of Christ and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit on His Church at Pentecost. To think that God condoned, much less commanded, murder and genocide is far afield from the truth. It is in this sense then, that we can comprehend the spiritual insight of St. Isaac of Syria. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (2000) informs us:

Thus Isaac claims, one should not interpret literally those Old Testament texts, where wrath, anger, hatred and other similar terms are applied to the Creator. When such anthropomorphic terms occur in Scripture, they are being used in a figurative sense, for God never does anything out of wrath, anger, or hatred: anything of that sort is far removed from His nature. We should not read everything literally, as it is written, but rather perceive within the Old Testament narratives the hidden providence and eternal knowledge of God.

As previously discussed, the writers of the Old Testament, in their literal presentation of God's actions or commands, were creating a God as they knew Him, from their own experience of His actions, and shaped by their times. It is the Scripture writers’ spiritual perception, not their literality, that is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Fr. John Breck (2001) points out that the Fathers of the Church understood the true meaning of Sacred Scripture more "holistically." Their understanding is based on theoria. Theoria "refers to an "inspired vision" of Divine Truth as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the biblical witness to Him."

Thus ,the Old Testament writers did not describe God as He truly is spiritually, but wrote of Him as He appeared to them through their human, historical-cultural perception. It would take God, Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, to lead His people to see the Divine, to a new level of spiritual development: that God's mercy exceeds what they conceived of as His justice. Alfeyev (2000) quotes St. Isaac:

Mercy is opposed to justice. Justice is equality on the even scale, for it gives to each as he deserves . . . . Mercy, on the other hand, is sorrow and pity stirred up by goodness. . . ; it does not requite a man who is deserving of evil, and to him who is deserving of good it gives a double portion. . . . it is evident that mercy belongs to the portion of righteousness [and] justice belongs to the portion of wickedness. . . . justice and mercy cannot abide in one soul....

Jesus tells His Apostles: "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away" (Matthew 13: 11-12).

Justice and Mercy: is all about love

St. Maximus the Confessor(Philokalia II) defines love in this way: “Love is a holy state of the soul, disposing it to value knowledge of God above all created things. We cannot attain lasting possession of such love while we are still attached to anything worldly.”

Love revisited

Philosophers (Lewis, 1960) distinguish four types of love: Storge: a fondness through familiarity, affection; philia: friendship, sharing a common bond; eros: a longing for an emotional connection (venus: the erotic aspect of eros); and agape: unconditional love, a caring for despite circumstance or situation. When St. John (1Jn 4:8) tells us "God is love," he is certainly not referring to fondness, friendship, or emotion , but unbounded, limitless, unconditional love: agape. The Anaphora Prayer from the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, summarized in human terms what this means: ". . .Thou art God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same, Thou and Thine Only-begotten Son and Thy Holy Spirit." The Anaphora Prayer continues with an existential description of the effects of agape-love:  "Thou it was who didst bring us from non existence into being, and when we had fallen away didst raise us up again, and didst not cease to do all things until Thou hadst brought us back to heaven. . . ."

Agape-love is Trinitarian. St. John starts his Gospel with the announcement:   "In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God" (Jn1:1-2). Later St. John tells us more of God:   "God is true. For He whom God has sent utters the words of God, for it is not by measure that He gives the Spirit; the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand.” (Jn 3: 33-35). And in the priestly prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper He makes explicit the implications of His agape-love: the sending of the Holy Spirit. "Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. . . .And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever,  even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; you know Him, for He dwells with you, and will be in you." (Jn 14: 13, 16-17).

God's mercy trumps His justice

No doubt our spiritual Church Father who was given the penultimate illumination into God's mercy was St. Isaac the Syrian. In the Dismissal Hymn for his feast we read:

O revealer of unfathomable mysteries; for having gone up in the mount of the vision of the Lord, thou wast shown the many mansions. Wherefore, O God-bearing Isaac, we entreat the Saviour for all praising thee. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)

This divine vision is further referred to in the Megalynarion for his feast:

From the depth of wisdom and godliness, thou didst draw forth waters springing up to eternal life. Nurtured by this fountain found in thy sacred writings, O lofty-minded Isaac, we taste of Christ God's grace. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)

The shortest summary of St. Isaac's spiritual perception is found in his Homily 51: "Have clemency, not zeal with respect to evil." (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)

Some sayings of the Church Fathers on mercy

However God's mercy was also perceived by other spiritual Fathers of the Church. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us:

Because He wishes to unite us in nature and will with one another and in His goodness urges all humanity towards this goal, God in His love entrusted His saving commandments to us, ordaining simply that we should show mercy and receive mercy (cf. Mt 5: 7). (Philokalia II)

After citing Christ's beatitude: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy," (Mt 5: 7) St. Peter of Damaskos states:

The merciful person is he who gives to others what he has himself received from God. . . . At the same time he considers himself a debtor, since he has received more than he is asked to give. . . . Through his brother, it is God Himself who has need of him, and in this way God has become his debtor. . . .This is perfect mercy; for just as Christ endured death on our behalf, giving to all an example and a model, so we should die for one another, and not only for our friends, but for our enemies as well, should the occasion call for it. (Philokalia III)

St. Nikitas Stithatos gives instruction to those who understand the spiritual meaning of Christ's parable on what destroys the seed of His Word. St Mark (4: 19) recounts  Jesus warning: ". . .but the cares of the world, and the delight in riches, and the desire for other things, enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful." To St. Nikitas, to follow Christ's counsel requires mercy: “To master the [worldly] will of the fallen self you have to. . . .overcome avarice by embracing the law of righteousness, which consists in merciful compassion [emphasis mine] for one's fellow beings. . . .”(Philokalia IV)

This saint tells us how important mercy is for salvation, that is to say, eternal life in God. St. Nikitas tells us what we must do:

If it [the soul] concerns itself with things divine and tills the ground of humility, tears fall on it like rain from heaven and it cultivates love for God, faith and compassion [mercy] for others . . . . the soul is renewed in the beauty of Christ's image, it becomes a light to others; attracting their attention with the rays of its virtue, it inspires them to glorify God. (Philokalia IV)

It is because we are made in God's image that we are called to be like Him. to live a life 'in God.' Our intellect, as the spiritual Church Fathers teach, is that which is closest to God's image in us. They considered the intellect the highest part of man, by which we come to know God in our hearts. In this regard St. John of the Ladder (1991) refers to the psalmist’s prayer: "With my whole heart I cry; answer me, O Lord!" (Ps 118: 145). St. John understands "heart" to be the essence or totality of man, the whole person,  which he terms  "body, soul and spirit."  In this regard St. Nikitas tells us that that the intellect is "’true to itself’" when it loves to dwell among things proximate to God and seeks to unite itself with Him. . .and desires to imitate Him in His compassion [emphasis mine] and simplicity."

The Godly saint also informs us why mankind falls short and, thus devoid of virtue, becomes "impervious to the Divine and spiritual  realities:"  As I mentioned previously:

Void of the Holy Spirit, they have no share in His gifts. As a result they exhibit no Godly fruit -love for God and for their fellow-men-.... neither do they experience compunction, tears, humility or compassion [emphasis mine] but they are all together filled with conceit and arrogance. (Philokalia IV)

Based  on St. Paul's words to the Corinthians: “. . . all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased" (1Cor 10: 3-3), St. Nikitas explains in more detail:

All of us were baptized into Christ through water and the Holy Spirit, and we all [partake the] food and drink [which is] Christ Himself, . . .[yet]. . . God finds no delight in most of us. . . For. .  .[we] lack the compunction that comes from a contrite and virtuous state of mind, and the compassion [emphasis mine] that springs from love for [our] fellow beings . . .[we] have become bereft of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, remote from the spiritual knowledge of God. (Philokalia IV)

Spiritual Stages of Development

That human body and psychological development takes place in stages is well known in scientific psychological research. (Cole & Cole, 1996; Piaget, 1970) No one is born with the fullness of sensory-motor function or cognitive ability. Development occurs in the context of an interaction between neuro-anatomical growth and environmental challenges. Such development occurs within what is termed the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)vii (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky states that the ZPD is: "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers." Two researchers (Tharp and Gilmore, 1988) have shown that this model can be extended to other spheres of competence and skills. Such particularized zones include cultural, individual  and skill-oriented developmental areas.

Most important for the purposes of this article  are the spiritual developmental stages discussed by our spiritual Church Fathers. Our inspired St. Nikitas delineates three major stages, summarized as follows:

Ministration and Performance of God's Commandments: We are reminded of Christ's injunction: "And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments." (Mt 19: 17) and St. Paul's commentary: “The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet," and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Rm 13: 9).

Compassion and Solidarity with Neighbor and discerning the Divine versus the world: This second stage is the major purpose of this article. That is to say, to discern what God expects of us in terms of acting in emulation of Him, toward our neighbors, both those with those who please us and with those who have gravely offended us.

Wisdom of the Logos: Our Goal: St. Nikitas considers attaining this stage as the fulfillment of completing the prior two stages. In a sense, this highlights the importance of exercising Divine Mercy and compassion in order to prepare ourselves to enter this stage.

Divine Forgiveness

Jesus' parable of the unforgiving servant (Mt 18: 23-35) can be considered a verbal icon of Divine Forgiveness.  The servant owed a large sum of money to his king. He could not pay the ten-thousand talents owed.  Initially the servant's lord "ordered him to be sold with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment had to be made.” (Mt 18: 25).  The servant did very little but simply fell on his knees and  implored his king for patience."  The parable continues with his master's unconditional response: "And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him his debt." (Mt 18: 27)

St. Paul sheds light on the meaning of such a Divinely forgiving act when writing to the Colossians (3:13): "[forbear] one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive." He informs the Ephesians (4: 31- 32) of this same command to forgive: "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." Lest it is thought that St. Paul thinks that Jesus imposed conditions on forgiveness, he tells the Romans (5: 6-8): "While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man -- though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." Christ's death on the cross for our sins was unconditional. As He Himself said from the Cross just before giving up His spirit: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." (Lk 23: 34)

Implication for mankind: unconditional forgiveness

The implications of Divine Forgiveness for mankind are made clear in the last part of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The servant, when approached by someone owing him, throws the debtor into jail. The servant's king’s strident reply (Mt 18: 32-35): "Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." 

This parable can be viewed in two ways. First  from the perspective of the individual who has been wronged, and second from the perspective of the wrongdoer. In emulation of God the person who has been mistreated has already pardoned and forgiven the miscreant even in the face of  intransigence on the part of the offender in not admitting wrongdoing or asking pardon. On the part of the reprobate, in order for reconciliation to be completed, the wrongdoer has to ask admit his wrong and want forgiveness.  

Forgiveness revisited

For mankind, forgiveness is an act of the will in emulation of the actions of God in terms of the persons of the Holy Trinity among themselves and in relation to us as His creatures. After a wrong has been committed, forgiveness desires and works toward bringing about good things for the perpetrator. Thus the act of forgiveness is an act of the will in which the victim is willing to create or re-create a relationship with the wrongdoer based on the charity that is Christ. At  the very least the victim of wrong ardently desires and fervently prays that the wrongdoer also be reconciled to God.

You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt 5: 48)

Several considerations may be help us in striving toward the perfect love of God and man which is agape. The first consideration is to realize that none of us is without sin. The second is that we have to examine our own sins and not those of others. The next thought to keep in mind is that we can we can judge acts (behaviors) but not the state of soul of the other. Only God knows what is in the heart of the other. As Jesus told the Pharisees: "God knows your hearts." (Lk 16: 15).

Jesus' instruction on condemning others

To those about to stone the woman caught in adultery Jesus said:  "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (Jn 8: 7). No one dared pick up any stone to throw at her. Is there anyone in the world today who is without sin and thus would be worthy to condemn her or anyone else for that matter? Only Jesus is the sinless one. As St. Paul instructs the Hebrews (4: 14-15): " Since then we have a great high priest. . . Jesus, the Son of God, . . .who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin."  Jesus’ emphasis is not on judgment and condemnation but on salvation and righteousness." If anyone had the "right” to condemn this woman, it would, therefore, be Jesus Himself. Thus, even more important are His last words to the woman: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again." (Jn 8: 11)

Jesus' instruction on self judgment

St. Luke (6: 41-42) tells us Jesus’ words about the care we must take to know our own faults. The knowledge of our own sins, transgressions and failures should prevent us from carrying out any  conviction of anyone for what they may have done. Jesus said:  "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye." To use Jesus’ own words, anyone who judges others is a hypocrite. St. Isaac of Syria (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) put it this way: "A man who unleashes his tongue against other men, whether over good matters or evil, is unworthy of His grace."

Jesus on action to take when offenses occur

Once again Jesus is very explicit on what actions we are to take when conflict arises between individuals. Interestingly, St. Mathew (5: 23-24) does not  record Jesus considering who may have caused the initial conflict. Jesus is  referring to conflict irrespective of cause. He tells His listeners:  "So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift." These words of Jesus are precise and emphatic.

Reconciliation rejected

Now a question comes up. Suppose you go to the other person and they refuse reconciliation.  In my view, the fact that a person, irrespective of fault, has a metanoia, a change of heart, a transformation and a reorientation and desire for rapprochement with the other, is the very minimum required for fulfilling Christ's command. Such an attitude would  include an awareness that all are sinful and thus fall short. It also means making a good faith effort to bring reconciliation about. If such reconciliation is still rejected by the other, be they  the victim or the offender, either should be ever ready to embrace the other in terms of wanting their good and welfare -- which would be reconciliation with all mankind and God Himself. In such a case they have fulfilled the spirit of Christ's imperative.

On judging actions, not persons

This does not mean that the actions of someone who is an offender are considered acceptable or worthy of approval. As Jesus told St. John the Evangelist using the voice of His angel: "Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate." (Rev 2:6). Thus, the one offended against can still consider the actions of the perpetrator to be morally sinful and socially reprehensible. However, love requires we not judge others as persons. Important to consider here are the words of St. Dorotheos of Gaza on the refusal to judge our neighbor:

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw an  outline of a circle. The centre of the point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. ... Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God Himself is the centre; the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are lives of men . . .  in proportion to their progress in the things of the spirit, the in fact come close to God and their neighbor. The closer they come to God the closer they come to one another. . . now consider [separation] ... the more they stand away from God. . .become distant from God, the more they become distant from one another.. . . .this is the very nature of love. (Wheeler, 1977)

Followers of Christ are required to give unconditional forgiveness and love

Unconditional and unilateral forgiveness, that is to say, even when the perpetrator does not ask for forgiveness, is a human emulation of the unconditional love that is God Himself. As St. Maximus the Confessor tells us:

'But I say to you,' says the Lord, 'love your enemies. . . do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who mistreat you' (Mt 5: 44). Why did He command this? To free you from hatred, irritation, anger and rancour, and to make you worthy  of the supreme gift of perfect love. And you cannot attain such love if you do not imitate God and love all men equally. For God loves all men equally and wishes them to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth' (1 Tim 2:3).          'But I say to you, do not resist evil; but if someone hits you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek as well. . . . (Mt 5: 39-41). Why did He say this? Both to keep you free from anger and irritation, and to correct the other person by means of your forbearance, so that like a good Father He might bring the two of you under the yoke of love. (Philokalia II)

St Ilias the Presbyter, gives us a concrete example of mercy without conditions: "A truly merciful person is not one that deliberately gives away superfluous things, but one that forgives those who deprive of him of what he needs." (Philokalia III)

We are made in God's Image: the foundation of unconditional love

All mankind is made in God's image. Furthermore, all mankind is called to be like Him. Our holy Spiritual Church Father Nikitas Stithatos explains this in precise terms:

What I am is an image of God manifest in a spiritual, immortal and intelligent soul, having an intellect that is the father of my consciousness and that is consubstantial with the soul and inseparable from it. That which characterizes me, and is regal and sovereign, is the power of intelligence and free will. That which relates  to my situation is what I may choose in exercising my free will, such as whether to b a farmer, a merchant, a mathematician or a philosopher. That which is external to me is whatever relates to my ambitions in this present life, to my class status and worldly wealth, to glory, honour, prosperity and exalted rank, or to their opposites, poverty, ignominy, dishonour and misfortune. (Philokalia IV)

This means that the dignity and worth of all is the same whether they are the greatest of saints or heroes or the greatest of despots or serial killers; they are all made in God's image.

In his Homily 64 St. Isaac of Syria makes clear that mercy is without conditions:

. . .let a merciful heart preside over your entire discipline, and you will be at peace with God. ... and when it is in you power to deliver the iniquitous man from evil, do not neglect to do so. . . try with your whole soul to rescue him, even to the point of dying for his sake. . . .and be like Him [Christ] Who for the sake of sinners accepted death on the Cross.... It is not your business to look into the worthiness of his deeds. Let only good come upon him from your hands. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)

In this same Homily St. Isaac goes on to give specific instructions as to our place and responsibility before others who have done wrong:

You however have not been appointed to decree vengeance on men's deeds and works, but rather to ask mercy for the world, to keep vigil for the salvation of all, and to partake in every man's suffering, both the just and sinners.... you should make supplication [prayer] that God's mercy come upon  him so that he may be changed and become conformed to God's will, and the he depart life in righteousness and not in retribution for iniquity. . . . Beseech God in behalf of sinners that they receive mercy. . . . Conquer evil men by your kind gentleness and make jealous men wonder at your goodness. Put the lover of justice to shame by your compassion. (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011)

What Jesus tells us about mankind judging others

However, although Jesus speaks about God judging mankind, this could be considered that He would be simply delineating or listing the reality of our actions. In behavioral-psychological terms this is what is called behavioral pinpointing: that is to say, what we have said and done, when and where. However, this is only part of the picture of God's actions. His mercy must then be considered.  St James makes very clear in the second chapter of his Epistle the serious sins mankind commits: partiality, simply offending one point of the law, adultery, murder, being unmerciful. But then St. James (2:13) reminds us that even in the face of being 'judged' for such sins: "mercy triumphs over judgment."

Important Societal Consideration

The need to protect individuals in society is an important pragmatic consideration that must be considered in putting mercy into practice. Morelli (2011) notes: "In practical (legal and moral) terms there are some choices that are made by others that are so egregious (and illegal) that they cannot be tolerated. An example would be physical, sexual, emotional and/or neglectful abuse [and especially murder]. Another example would be unabated adultery, alcoholism and drug use.  Reporting abuse to the legal authorities is imperative, as is seeking spiritual and mental health counseling in such matters." Numerous research studies have indicated that there are some anti-social behaviors that cannot be "cured." Patrick (2006). Such individuals should be considered for lifetime imprisonment, without parole. However, such individuals should also be cared for spiritually to the greatest extent possible.

St. Isaac of Syria summarizing the place of Justice for Christians

St. Isaac (Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 2011) makes it very clear:

Justice does not belong to the Christian way of life, and there is no mention of it in Christ's teaching. Rejoice with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep; for this is the sign of limpid purity. Suffer with the sick, and mourn with sinners; with those who repent, rejoice. . . . Be a partaker in the sufferings of all men, but keep your body distant from all. Rebuke no man, revile no man not even those who live wickedly.

It could be said that for Christianity justice is mercy.

" must love those who offend against you and pray for them until your soul is reconciled to them." St. Silouan the Athonite (Sophrony, 1999)


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i Wensinck (1923)



iv Among those who apply the 'wisdom' of the world in criticizing the orthodox understanding of Scripture is Pinker (2011), referenced in this article. Among the most egregious and nefarious departures from the Holy Spirit inspired understanding of Christ's teaching by His Church is the work of Ehrman. Representative of such heresy is:  Ehrman, B.D. (2005). Misquoting Jesus: The story behind who changed the Bible and why. NY: Harper; Ehrman, B.D. (2008) God's problem: How the Bible fails to answer our most important question -- why we suffer. NY: Harper; Ehrman, B.D. (2009). Jesus interrupted: Revealing the hidden contradictions in the Bible (and why we don't know about them. NY Harper. Of such St Peter (2Pt 2: 1,3) warned: "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, beware lest you be carried away with the error of lawless men and lose your own stability. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words; from of old their condemnation has not been idle, and their destruction has not been asleep." And as St. John tells us in his Epistle: "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world." 1Jn 4:1).


vi Such myopia would could be compared to considering the betrayal of Judas (Mt 27: 3-5) or the denial of Peter (Mt 26: 75) to be  a reflection of Christ's teachings.