Mercy versus judgment

Judgment. In its more neutral sense, it suggests an exercise of reason: we gather facts and make distinctions, then form a considered opinion or make a decision. As parents, for example, we want our teenagers to use “good judgment.” When friends tempt them to do questionable things, we want them to think before they act. (Neuroscientists, however, remind us that given the unfinished development of the adolescent brain, that may be harder than it seems…)

That’s a good thing.

But there is a negative connotation to the word “judgment” too, as when we accuse someone of being “judgmental.” Here, people may rush to judgment based on emotion-driven interpretations and taken-for-granted but prejudiced assumptions. No one likes to be on the receiving end of such judgments; we may be left feeling misunderstood and maligned.

Nor do we like the idea of being subjected to judgment for the things we know we’ve done wrong. Even if we admit our guilt, we’d prefer to avoid the punishment.

Thus, as we’ve seen in recent posts, depending on our understanding of words like “law” and “judgment,” we might get a little nervous when we read passages like this one from James:

In every way, then, speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. There will be no mercy in judgment for anyone who hasn’t shown mercy. Mercy overrules judgment. (James 2:12-13, CEB)

I’ve argued that we need to understand what James is saying against the background of Jesus’ teaching, particularly in texts like the parable of the unmerciful servant and the coda to the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 18:35; Matt 6:15). The one who fails to show mercy to others is under judgment, not because they’ve broken the rules, but because they’ve failed to be transformed by the mercy they’ve already been so graciously granted.

Thus, when James says that we should “speak and act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom,” I take him to be echoing Jesus’ teaching about a kind of righteousness that transcends Pharisaism. Our lives, in other words, should show that we know ourselves to be under a gospel of grace, such that our conduct toward others is saturated with mercy. And this is in marked contrast to the evil judgments or distinctions (James 2:4) believers were making in preferring the rich to the poor.

“Mercy,” therefore, “overrules judgment.” Some other translations (e.g., NRSV, NASB, NIV) have “triumphs over” in place of “overrules”: the word can have the connotation of boasting over someone else. Mercy scores a touchdown over judgment, then gleefully spikes the ball in the end zone.

There’s more than one way of reading this, though. On the one hand, James’ meaning is theological: it’s the triumph of heaven over hell, grace over condemnation, the law of love over the legalism of the Pharisees.

On the other hand, there’s a social meaning here too. We all make judgments and distinctions, and real people are on the receiving end of our evaluations. But a worldly or legalistic mindset goes further: we divide humanity into the worthy and the unworthy, the righteous and the unrighteous, the people who are worth my time and attention and those who are not. In that sense, mercy triumphs over the judgments that divide and ostracize, that dishonor and disrespect.

It’s not just a question of what kind of person I must be as an individual, but what kind of people we want to be, together, in community. James envisions a church in which the hearts of all have been transformed by the implanted word (James 1:21); in turn, the community is transformed as people gaze into the law of liberty, become doers of the word (1:25), and change their behaviors and attitudes toward one another.

We stand under a gospel of grace; we have received a boundless mercy that cancels condemnation. May we in turn create communities of mercy, in which our judgments of one another are similarly transformed.