Our Longing for Justice and Need for Mercy

justice and mercy.jpg

One of our deepest desires as human beings is a longing for justice. We long for our lives and the world around us to be bounded by what is just, right, true, and fair without impartiality.

At our jobs or in our classrooms, we want things to be fair with all people treated well and measured equally against a dispassionate measure of job expectations or class requirements. In elections, both here and around the world, we long for fairness in the process so that votes are counted and everyone is give appropriate consideration. This is why we have impartial monitoring groups paying attention to elections around the world. This longing for justice is behind the outcries that arise when human rights are violated, whether around the world or here in our own country. International watchdog groups give voice to the helpless or the ignored so that justice can be brought to bear in their lives. We long for justice because we experience injustice and sin in our world.

This is a concept that appears throughout the Bible. When we wonder what God is like, we inevitably encounter the God of the Bible as a God of justice. The Torah calls for maintaining justice and dealing appropriately with the wrongs in the world: protecting widows, orphans, foreigners and the weak in the face of a difficult world. The Hebrew word, mishpat, is the word most often translated as ‘justice’ in the Old Testament. It conveys the idea of right and appropriate order of a just cause being maintained in the world. When we ask the question, “What is God like?”, we discover that at least one answer is this: He is a God of justice.

But here is something interesting. Even as we long for complete justice in the world, we encounter our own need for leniency. We call for justice for wrongs done by some to us or others, but we often hesitate when we do wrongs ourselves.

When a toddler has his toy taken by another child who did not ask, the toddler cries out for the toy to be returned. It was taken unfairly. But it comes as a great surprise to that same toddler when he is placed in a time-out for unfairly taking a toy without asking from one of his peers later on. Justice looks good from one perspective but looks a bit more painful when justice hits closer to us personally.

In 1984, Jennifer Thompson was a 22-year-old college student with a promising life ahead of her. But when a man broke into her apartment and assaulted her on a warm summer night, she vowed to put him in jail for the rest of her life. When the police gathered a lineup of men for her to identify, she pointed to man #5: Ronald Cotton, as the perpetrator. In the 1985 trial, Cotton was sentenced to life in prison with little hope of release. Justice had been served, or so it appeared.

11 years later, Jennifer Thompson received a knock at the door of her home. She had moved on, gotten married, had children, but every day for 11 years, she had been praying for Ronald Cotton to die. The detective at her door had some important news for her. After a review of evidence through advanced DNA testing, it became clear that Ronald Cotton was not her assailant but, rather, another man already in prison, Bobby Poole. Ronald Cotton was not guilty.

11 years. Ronald Cotton falsely imprisoned. Jennifer Thompson held in a prison of anger. The tables had been turned and Jennifer Thompson said, “I was overwhelmed with guilt and shame for mistakenly putting an innocent man in prison….I found it almost impossible to forgive myself.”

So, when Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson were reunited, she begged for forgiveness. Ronald Cotton took her hands, and with tears in his eyes, told her that he had forgiven her a long time ago.

Ronald Cotton said that both he and Jennifer were victims of the same man. They both became wounded, but they both began to heal. He said, “I choose to forgive…so that I stay free and not be a prisoner the rest of my life.”[1]

You see, we long for justice – for things to be set right in our lives and world – but we also long for mercy because we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our world and also right through us. 

In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a story about a servant who was gravely indebted to a king for a tremendous amount of money. He owed the king so much money, in fact, that as a day laborer it would have taken him about 3,000 lifetimes to pay the debt off. When the king brought this man in to settle the debt – to experience justice – the servant begged for mercy. Seeing the servant’s pleas, the king decided to cancel the debt and give the man a new lease on life. Justice was going to be served but instead the servant received mercy.

Returning home, this servant encountered a fellow servant who owed him about four month’s wages and began to choke him, commanding him to repay the debt. Although this other servant too begged for mercy, the first servant denied it and had the man thrown in prison.

The king eventually heard of this situation and called the servant in. Hadn’t this servant owed the king more than he could repay in 3,000 lifetimes? Hadn’t the king shown mercy and cancelled the debt? And now the servant had thrown another man in prison for a debt of four month’s pay? Where is the justice in this lack of mercy?

We long for justice, but human justice can, honestly, at times be unjust. The encounter with justice leads us ultimately into a plea for mercy.  We long for mercy because we know we all need it. The chasm of injustice and sin runs right through our own souls as well.

What good news it is that the God of the Bible is both a God of justice and a God of mercy. One of the most prevalent cries in the psalms is for mercy: “Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint; heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony” (Psalm 6:2). And one of the most resounding themes of the entire Bible is that God is a God of mercy:

  • “Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” (Isaiah 55:7)
  • “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18)
  • “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.” (Micah 7:18)

It is in the character of God to be both just and merciful. We struggle to bring these two characteristics together, but God is capable of bringing both to bear upon human lives in a way that also reflects His wisdom.

Ultimately, we encounter this within the work of Jesus Christ, whose ministry is one of both justice and mercy. James’ description of the Christian reality speaks to the ministry of Jesus: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). Paul’s marvelous summary of the good news in Ephesians 2, finds its center in the mercy of God:

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:3-5)

What a gift that our strongest longing for justice meets with our strongest need for mercy in Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God. What is God like? He is a God of justice and a God of mercy.


[1] “Finding Freedom In Forgiveness,” NPR – This I Believe, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=101469307, November 26, 2011.

Scandalous Jesus – a new series at Eastbrook Church

This coming Sunday at Eastbrook Church we begin a new preaching series entitled “Scandalous Jesus.” This series traces the journey of Jesus in Jerusalem from His triumphal entry through His crucifixion.

This series also parallels the season of Lent and you are welcome to join in with the Lenten devotional we pull together every year written by the Eastbrook community. You can access the devotional online, as a downloadable PDF, via the Eastbrook app, or through a limited-run of paper copies.

This is the ninth part of our long series on Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom: parables of Jesus,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, “‘Tis the Reason,” and “Jesus Said What?!

Join us each weekend of this series in-person or via Eastbrook at Home.

Here are the weekly topics for this six-part series:

March 6 – “Unlikely King” – text: Matthew 20:17-19; 21:1-11

March 13 – “The Withering of the Old Ways” – text: Matthew 21:12-27

March 20 – “Pictures of the Kingdom” – text: Matthew 21:28-22:14

March 27 – “Questioning Jesus” – text: Matthew 22:15-46, focusing on 34-46

April 3 – “The Woes of the Religiously Misguided” – text: Matthew 23:1-38

April 10 [Palm Sunday] – “And So It Begins” – text: Matthew 26:1-16

Jesus on Greatness

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we continued our preaching series entitled “Jesus Said What?!” by turning to another important topic: greatness. Will Branch joins us to explore three passages on this topic: Matthew 18:1-6, 10-11; 19:13-15; 20:20-28.

This message is from the eighth part of our longer journey through the Gospel of Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, and “‘Tis the Reason.”

You can find the message video and outline below. You can also view the entire series here. Join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26-28)

Who is the Greatest?

  • Us: Power
  • The Disciples: Position
  • The Disciples Mom: Prestige

Jesus on Greatness

  • Those accepted into the kingdom
  • Those considered great in the kingdom
  • The pathway to greatness in the kingdom

Jesus’ Warnings

  • Don’t pull them down
  • Don’t get in the way
  • Don’t abuse your authority

Dealing with Sin in the Church: Notes from Matthew 18

Sin and forgiveness. We deal with these things daily. Perhaps one of the most painful and difficult times is when we deal with sin and the need for forgiveness within the church. It seems that as followers of Christ we should understand these topics and live accordingly. Christianity is known as a faith marked by deep emphasis on sin and forgiveness. And yet, we seem to struggle with these realities in one another. It seems surprising.

But it isn’t surprising to Jesus. He expected that we would struggle with sin and forgiveness as His followers. He knew that working toward whole, reconciled relationships with one another would be a challenge. Because of His knowledge of these things, Jesus taught His followers about them. In Luke 17, we find powerful words about the necessity of complete forgiveness and our response when we are sinned against. It is in Matthew 18, however, that Jesus teaches on the process for dealing with sin in the church. What follows is a series of notes on the contours of Jesus’ teaching about dealing with sin.

One to One (vs 15)
It is important to note that Jesus calls us to discreetly and privately address the wrong done to us by speaking to the person one to one. Jesus says to ‘point out the fault’ which means we do not avoid talking about it nor do we rub the other’s face in it through guilt messages. We simply point it out. Also, we are not to trumpet the wrong to others or publicly humiliate another for their sin against us. Jewish teachers around Jesus’ time said that to publicly shame someone who had sinned against us would run the risk of exclusion from paradise. We must go to the person directly and neither hold it in – which gives birth to bitterness – nor talk behind that person’s back – which gives birth to division in the church. The goal, as mentioned in Luke 17, is to win the person over, or to restore relationship.

Two or Three to One (vs 16)
If the person does not respond to the individual conversation about the wrong, then we are to take one or two people with us to point it out. The intent here is not to gang up on the wrongdoer but actually to safeguard them from any false accusations. As in 1 Timothy 5:19-20, the extra witnesses come along in order to corroborate the facts; that is, to insure that a wrong actually has been committed. If you have been sinned against, you should not bring others with you in order to intimidate a wrongdoer. Bringing one or two others safeguards the conversation and helps to keep it firmly grounded in truth, without false accusations flying back and forth. The witnesses should be neutral. And in case we had forgotten, the goal is to win the person over, or to restore relationships within the people of God.

To the Church (vs 17a)
If the wrongdoer will not listen even with a couple of others in the room, then the situation has become very serious and must be addressed within the broader, local church community. Still, Jesus is clear that the utmost energy and care should be exerted to deal with this privately at first. It is only after this that Jesus says, “we should tell it to the church.” Why does He say this? Jesus is helping us to see that, if the relational tensions haven’t already become an issue that is noticeable to the whole church, this issue should come to the attention of all so that bitter divisions do not take root in the church. The focus is on pastoral concern for the entire body of Christ. The aim is still that the wrongdoer would listen, and the ultimate goal is still to win the person over, or to restore relationship between the wronged and the wrongdoer. In our day, some might wonder what the appropriate way to bring this to the church would be? Clearly not to start a rumor mill or to stand up in the services to yell out an accusation. Those two responses lack the pastoral concern that pervades Jesus’ teaching. I would propose that the appropriate route is to bring it to the pastoral staff, elders, or other church leadership for guidance and help. These leaders stand, as it were, with responsibility for the entire church and should be the easiest point of access within the church.

Treat Them Like an Outsider (v 17b)
If there is still no repentance, then we are to treat the wrongdoer like an outsider to the faith, “as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” While the goal has always been to restore and reconcile relationship, this is the end of the road. Some scholars debate whether Jesus is referring to a formal excommunication from the church resulting in spiritual death (as in 1 Corinthians 5:5 or 1 Timothy 1:20) or simply the manner in which we treat someone relationally. Regardless of which direction you take this, three things are clear: 1) the wrongdoer is apparently unwilling to listen to anything anyone has to say; 2) there is little option available other than treating them like an outsider; and 3) this is NOT the place we want to arrive at within the family of God called the church. Hope does linger in the background that, as with the Corinthian case, the cold shoulder of treating them like an outsider may help them come back around, but we never can tell. In a sense, we have come to a point where we finally admit that our best efforts to win them over and reconcile have failed, and only God can win them over and change the heart of another person.

All along, the goal has been to point out sin so that wrongs can be made right through forgiveness. The prayer of Jesus before the Cross was that the community of His followers would walk in unity so the world around us would know the love of the Father:

…that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that You sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me. (John 17:23)

May that be our aim in our relationships with other believers.

For further resources on dealing with conflict, I strongly recommend Ken Sande’s book, The Peacemaker, as well as the web-site for Peacemaker Ministries.

Jesus Said What?! – a new series at Eastbrook

This coming Sunday at Eastbrook Church we begin a new preaching series entitled “Jesus Said What?!” On His way to the Cross Jesus teaches about a series of things we often avoid in the church or don’t associate with the teaching of Jesus. Join us as we explore things you may never knew Jesus addressed in His teaching.

This is the eight part of our longer series on Matthew, which includes “Family Tree,” “Power in Preparation,” “Becoming Real,” “The Messiah’s Mission,” “Stories of the Kingdom: parables of Jesus,” “Who Do You Say I Am?“, and “‘Tis the Reason.”

Join us each weekend of this series in-person or via Eastbrook at Home.

Here are the weekly topics for this four-part series:

February 6 – “Jesus on Sin and Forgiveness” – text: Matthew 18:15-35

February 13 – “Jesus on Divorce and Marriage” – text: Matthew 19:1-12; 22:23-33

February 20 – “Jesus on Greatness” – text: Matthew 18:1-14; 19:13-15; 20:20-28

February 27 – “Jesus on Taxes, Riches, and God’s Generous Kingdom” – text: Matthew 17:24-27; 19:16-30; 20:1-16; 22:15-22