The response in our responsorial psalm today is a bit scary. It is a declaration of faith in God as our sole judge, as the only one who can exact retribution. It says, “Lord, you give back to everyone according to his works.” If I were to paraphrase it, I would propose two alternative ways of putting it: one, “Lord you measure out to us the measure with which we measure others.” Another is, “Lord, you give us a dose of our own medicine.”
In the Gospel, Jesus is pronouncing an oracle on those who “impose on other people burdens hard to carry, but who would not lift one finger to touch them.” It is an important warning to people who abuse authority and begin to play god. People who say to themselves the moment they taste power, “What are we in power for?”
In most civilized societies, people set up laws to make sure that judgment is never made arbitrarily. They put up a justice system that will make sure the accused are “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” The burden of the proof of guilt is laid on the accuser, with the help of a lawyer, following what we call a “due process of law”. Why? Because it is not right to condemn the innocent or exonerate the guilty. Why is the process made so tedious? Because it is always tempting to pass a quick judgment on the basis of mere impressions or allegations. And it is wrong to make a judgment without being adequately informed about all the facts and circumstances.
I know that this is often cited as a reason why people are tempted to just take the law into their own hands—namely, the desire for quick justice. When people are victimized, their natural instinct is to get even, to exact vengeance or demand retribution. But our faith teaches us that this is not the right motive for clamoring for justice. It is not Christian to desire to hurt those who have hurt us, or to return evil for evil. That is why we have passages like Romans 12:19, which actually quotes Deuteronomy 32:35, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
So, what is the law for if its purpose is not to exact revenge? Well, it is meant to establish order in society. We will be in a chaos the moment people cannot resort to a legal system anymore and would rather take the law into their own hands.
This is also the reason why in most civilized countries, the death penalty has already been abolished. Last October 10, the UN celebrated what it called a “World Day against Death Penalty”. I like the posters they circulated with the following message, “Why do we KILL people-who-KILL-people to show KILLING people is wrong?” The death penalty advocates say they only want to empower the state to put an end to criminality. To do this, they propose to kill criminals; they kill people, not the criminality.
If death penalty which is “judicial killing” is already considered as uncivilized in most countries, imagine how much more uncivilized it is to resort to extrajudicial killings? And yet it is becoming a common trend in societies that entrust political power to leaders who promise quick justice by making short cuts, leaders who make themselves popular by satisfying the lust for vengeance, by adding fuel to people’s resentments and blaming their woes on particular sectors or groups of people.
These are the leaders who project a strong man image by villifying those they regard as their enemies, or those they label as liabilities to society. They are the type who exaggerate the imperfections of the human justice systems and are quick at proposing their violent methods as an “ultimate solution”.
Many people do not realize that Hitler was only one of many other big time criminals in history who have committed genocide. Do you think they would have succeeded in committing such unspeakable crimes against humanity if they had not been empowered by their enablers and supporters? These ones also share in the collective guilt as “partners in crime.” The warning of St. Paul is very strong in our first reading. He says, “They will not escape the judgment of God.” He also says God knows who they are and in due time “affliction and distress will come upon them” unless they repent.
I realize why the notion of a God who is the ultimate source of justice is an important element in building a more humane society—what we call a “civilization of love.” It is faith in this God that makes room for forgiveness, for giving people the benefit of the doubt that they did not know better, that were under the spell of evil but were not innately evil themselves. That no one is to be treated as the enemy, except the evil one—the one who corrupts what is innately good in us. That no human being is beyong redemption, and that the so-called ULTIMATE SOLUTION is really an illusion, not a solution.