Punishment to Justice to Mercy

Our Lessons from Scripture today form part of an interesting trajectory we can trace through the entire Bible. A trajectory one might identify as moving from punishment to justice to mercy. One of the more disturbing parts of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, is this threat attached to the Second Commandment about worshipping idols:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents, to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus 20:5-6)

This idea of the “sins of the fathers being visited upon the sons” sat somewhat uneasily with Israel’s idea of a just God. You can see that hinted at in our Psalm today, “If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, O Lord, who could stand? For there is forgiveness with you; therefore you shall be feared…O Israel, wait for the Lord, for with the Lord there is mercy; with him there is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.” (Psalm 130:2-3, 6-7)

Indeed, by the time of the Prophet Ezekiel, we get teaching like this one which leads into our First Lesson today: “Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?’ When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live.  The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.  But if the wicked turns away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die.” (Ezekiel 18:19-21)

So, here we have a kind of “fair is fair” justice with the sinner suffering the consequences of his or her own sin and not punishing the children for it. And we even see mercy beginning to show itself in the possibility of forgiveness after repentance being offered.

Jesus, of course, takes it even further in the Gospels by saying things like, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer…You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love you enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:38 ff).

So, we have a kind of compassion and mercy shown here, so that sinners do not even get what they deserve but are recipients of God’s grace and God’s mercy. In the words of Frederick Faber’s great hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea/ there’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty/. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good/ there is mercy with the Savior; there is healing in his blood.”

However, lest we get too comfortable with all this, we also need to recognize that Jesus holds us to an even greater standard, in some respects: “You have heard it said…You shall not murder…But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…If you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the council; and if you say, You fool, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21 ff)  

Jesus looks on the heart and into our intentions, not only to our actions and behaviors.

That means we need to look into those same hearts and intentions before too quickly absolving ourselves of any sin.

We’re all sinners. And we will all stand before God for judgment. It’s just good to know that the sin we will be confronted with is our own sin – not those of our ancestors.

And that the judgment God will render…is always tempered…by mercy! 

5 Responses to “Punishment to Justice to Mercy”

  1. JB Says:

    I wonder that the decalogue warning speaks to the reality of our own sins and that we often forget the warning. Yes, we are responsible for our own sins before God, but others often face the consequences of our sins. If I do something illegal and find myself in jail, my children suffer the consequences. If I have murdered someone, that family does as well. The same is true for any host of sins which we consider.

    I think the warning is an excellent reminder to us of the consequences that come from serving other gods. If I serve and idolize money and spend all my time in the work place making money (and not attending to my family), will there not be consequences? If I seek esscape from the pain of life in a bottle or a needle, might there not be consequences?

    I think your trajectory works, but it is an often occuring trajectory throughout the entirety of the OT. God showed mercy with Noah, Babel, and Judah in Genesis, just to name a few examples. Certainly, His admonishment, patience, and restorations of the people of Israel reflect that trajectory. Even Dt commands a socio-economic ethos which is nothing if not compassionate.

    It is a wonderful and blessed thing to know that I will face judgment only for my sins, but I think it ignorant not to expect to face the consequences of the sins of my ancestors. Else, why do we here so often that life is unfair . . . ?


  2. ecubishop Says:

    Thanks, JB, for a very helpful addition and perspective to my reflections.

  3. JB Says:

    You know, bishop, you made me think of another (I love good questions/reflections!). Even the passage you cite has the punishment lasting only three or four generations, but the mercy and steadfastness are shown to the thousandth generation. The world would certainly buy into the first part of that, but never the second. And how many children of faithful parents would argue with God on that point? I wonder, given the trajectory you pointed out (FWIW, I think aptly), where is the justice in this passage? No answers, just ponderings. . .


  4. rwk Says:

    What this passage brings me back to is the fullness and sufficiency of the death and resurrection. It is not that God is just, and then decides mercy is “superior”. It is that God is both fully just and fully merciful, and I may add full of grace. The cross, in my view, satisfies the justice, mercy and grace of God. The price is paid, we are given mercy and most importantly, we are given the undeserved grace of becoming heirs to His kingdrom. He is present in His completeness at that moment on the cross. If your god is only a a god of mercy, it is an idol. If your god is only a god of justice, it is an idol. I’d welcome any comments.

  5. JB Says:

    Not much can be added, rwk.


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