The first words we hear from Sirach this week call to mind one of the greatest ongoing challenges we will encounter in Christian life: “The LORD is a God of justice.” What a simple sentence. Yet we know that justice is complicated, a sometimes baffling and often elusive proposition. Even if we have been able to discern what is just in a given situation, quite often the demands for justice are more than we can bear. And, the next time around, justice may yet mean something entirely different.
The last several Sunday Gospels have highlighted these challenges. Did the wise steward do the right thing when he forgave his master’s debts? Did the rich man deserve “torment in Hades” only because he wore fine robes and ate sumptuously? Should the widow have gotten justice from the dishonest judge for being persistent, instead of for being right? These perplexities of justice confound us not only when we hear Scripture, of course. They are a part of everyday life, and they always have been.
For help, we might turn to John Rawls’s sprawling, landmark A Theory of Justice where he proposed in 1973 that justice is fairness. That notion sounds simple and obvious enough. Yet, those of us who have been parents have seen how quickly arguments about what really is ‘fair’ can get started (and grown adults will disagree, too). But fundamentally, Rawls was on the right track. Like Sirach suggests to us, justice is about deserving. But even there we must be careful. Sometimes we might mistake this as sanctioning revenge, a selfish certainty a person should get what we think she or he deserves. We have to remind ourselves that only God knows what we deserve. For this reason, we are cautioned against judging one another (Mt. 7:1), and we always must remember the God who is the source of justice also is merciful (Ps. 85:10).
Sirach describes for us the foundation of what Catholic social teaching often calls the “preferential option,” a phrase originated by the late Jesuit Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) and which describes what we hear in this week’s readings. God is “not unduly partial toward the weak, yet hears the cry of the oppressed.” “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds; it does not rest till it reaches its goal.” God loves all of us in the same way. Yet, when our portion of suffering is greater for one reason or another, God’s love is even more available. “[T]he Most High responds, judges justly, and affirms the right.”
More challenging than the idea that sometimes God prioritizes someone else above us is the even stranger idea that we should, too. This is precisely what Jesus addresses with the paradoxical conclusion of this week’s Gospel — “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Only once I suspect that I am not deserving do I become deserving. Only once I place the needs of other before my needs can I claim any insight into what is fair and just. We begin to see the merciful, full picture of justice-as-fairness only once we begin to see matters in this paradoxical perspective, one that strains against the wisdom we find in the world around us.
Our conversation about justice has grown strange in the United States, and not suddenly or recently. We Americans have been on a long path of individualism that frustrates wondering whether someone else deserves more than we do. We are fed a steady diet of ‘You earned it, you deserve it all.’ This leads not only to some people accumulating more wealth than they ever could spend but, even more strangely, it leads poorer people to believe that others deserve to be so rich. Along the way, the phrase ‘social justice’ has become one of those labels that tells the good guys from the bad buys, depending on which side of the argument on which we find ourselves. Some American Catholics have come to believe that a ‘social justice Catholic’ is different from other Catholics, as though the Gospel does not call all of us to its challenging vision of justice.
When is that vision most challenging? The answer is: all the time. The answer is: when we feel most sure that we are the good guys. The answer is: when we are convinced of our own righteousness.
In one of his morning homilies, Pope Francis has told us that, “in God, justice is mercy and mercy is justice.” But there is a simpler way of saying it, still. I heard the story once of a mother of eight who was asked which of her children she loved the most. Her reply — “The one who needs it the most” — is the answer. God sees us all together, like the mother who sees her children each as individuals and all together as a family.
In the end, justice is seeing that whole picture together, trying to see it as God sees it.