In the Nooks and Crannies of Justice
Fr. Scott A. Haynes
A Meditation on St. Luke 16:1-9
At that time, Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: There was a certain rich man who had a steward, who was reported to him as squandering his possessions. And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear of you? Make an accounting of your stewardship, for you can be steward no longer.’ And the steward said within himself, ‘What shall I do, seeing that my master is taking away the stewardship from me? To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. I know what I shall do, that when I am removed from my stewardship they may receive me into their houses.’ And he summoned each of his master’s debtors and said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ And he said, ‘A hundred barrels of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bond and sit down at once and write fifty.’ Then he said to another, ‘How much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred kors of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bond and write eighty.’ And the master commended the unjust steward, in that he had acted prudently; for the children of this world, in relation to their own generation, are more prudent than the children of the light. And I say to you, make friends for yourselves with the mammon of wickedness, so that when you fail they may receive you into the everlasting dwellings.
In the Gospel of St. Luke, we find the Parable of the Unjust Steward, where we behold two men who owe debts to their master. One owes a hundred barrels of oil. The other fellow owes a hundred quarters of wheat. These two debtors can represent for us, in a symbolic way, all the faithful, who are bound to observe the two precepts of charity—to love God and neighbor. Thus, the hundred barrels of oil denote the love of God, the hundred quarters of wheat love of neighbor.
St. Anthony explains that the reason why the oil signifies God’s charity is that oil floats upon other liquids. So, just as oil rises and floats on water, so the love of God should rise above every other love. The hundred barrels of oil stand for the highest perfection of divine love. If these barrels of oil symbolize charity, the Church, who is the Bride of Christ, acts as the steward of God’s gifts. And so the Church asks each of you,
“How much do you owe my lord?”
The Church is asking how much are you bound to love God? In the language of this parable, each of us should answer that question saying that we owe God: “A hundred barrels of oil”; that is, each of us owes God all the perfection of love.
I am bound to love God with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my strength. But because I am a sinner, I often fail in meeting that love. I don’t give God 100 barrels of oil. I fail to give 100 percent. Rather it seems that I give him a tablespoon of oil. Just as we owe God perfect love, symbolized by the 100 barrels of oil, we owe love to our neighbor too, and this is symbolized by the hundred quarters of wheat mentioned in the parable.
Just as we are stingy with God, so too are we often miserly and poor in loving our neighbor. With regard to our neighbor, St. Paul exhorts us to put away wrath, anger and jealousy towards our neighbor. We are not to covet his goods. Nor should we be envious of him. One must not treat our neighbor as an object to use and abuse. Rather, we are to see our neighbor through the lens of charity. We are to share the richness of Christ’s love with our neighbor
Often our neighbor needs 100 quarters of wheat from us, as the parable says. In other words, our neighbor needs our total support, our unreserved love and our total attention. But how often do we ignore one another and fail in the service of loving our neighbor? We are selfish and do not want to spend any time doing good for one who is bothersome to us.
If we see no profit to be gained through an act of kindness, we hold back. We are self-centered and egotistical. As we go before the tribunal of God that is the confessional, we ought to accuse ourselves of the failures of love we have exhibited toward both God and neighbor. Then Christ, acting through His own steward, the Priest, exercises both mercy and justice. In the language of this parable, Christ our High Priest and Lord, says:
“Take thy bill and sit down quickly and write fifty.”
When the secular world hears of mercy, it tends to equate it with sentimentality. The latter, however, is not a virtue, but an emotional indulgence. The author Tolstoy drew a clear image of sentimentality in referring to fashionable Russian ladies who are moved to tears by a theater performance but remain oblivious to their own coachmen sitting outside waiting for them in the freezing cold in the street.
Sentimentality begins and ends with emotion but is not in harmony with justice or the needs of others. Mercy is indeed a lofty virtue. But it cannot remain a virtue if it contradicts another virtue, specifically the virtue of justice. St. Thomas Aquinas remarks:
“Mercy does not destroy justice but is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice. Mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, [whereas] justice without mercy is cruelty.”
The merciful person is eager to dispense mercy whenever he can do some good. But there is no advantage in dispensing mercy to someone who has not repented and remains committed to a wrong way of living. Such a person needs care and guidance before he is eligible for mercy.
This point is dramatically brought home in Heinrich von Kleist’s play The Prince of Homburg. In the play, the Prince, having disobeyed a military order, is sentenced to death. His father, the Elector of Brandenburg, wants to save the life of his son, but cannot offer him mercy as long as the Prince does not admit that what he did was wrong and remains unrepentant. After considerable reflection, the Prince formally acknowledges the justice of his sentence, an act which makes him eligible for his father’s mercy. Justice is acknowledged, mercy is applied, and the play has a happy ending.
Today, mercy is all too frequently confused with generosity. Generosity is rightly directed to a good man, and it transcends the demands of justice. Mercy is directed to one who is suffering. But it must abide by the rules of justice. According to C.S. Lewis:
“Mercy will flower only when it grows in the crannies of the rock of Justice; transplanted to the marshlands of mere Humanitarianism, it becomes a man-eating weed, all the more dangerous because it is still called by the same name as the mountain variety.”
Mercy is humane only when it crowns justice. It is not an independent virtue. Its humane aspect is clearly evident because it is based on an acute sensitivity to human weakness. If we are not merciful to others, we deny our own fallibility and, consequently, our own need for mercy.
The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tied these two points together very well when he wrote:
“Being all fashioned of the self-same dust, let us be merciful as well as just.”