The covenant qualities of judgment, mercy, and fidelity: judgment

In the past weeks I have been writing about how the Old Testament compares the covenant between God and Israel to a marriage. We have seen that Israel acted in relation to God as a woman in relation to her rich and loving husband, taking her husband’s gifts and wealth, filling herself with pride because of her own status, but not reciprocating her husband’s love.

In this context, Israel needed to pass through the experience of the humiliation of exile, in which she was stripped of the rich temple worship. That prepared Israel mercy from the hand of the Lord, being restored to land and temple. She learned through her experience to love the Lord of the covenant, rather than the gifts of the covenant.

In this context we can now turn to the words of the prophet Hosea that our Lord himself cited when he said, Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. (Mt 9:12-13)

In the saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, ‘mercy’ is given as the salient characteristic of a person who lives in fidelity to the covenant. Our Lord, however, elsewhere puts mercy together with two other qualities when he refers to the weightier matters of the law as judgment, mercy, and fidelity. (cf. Mt 23:23) If these are the ‘weightier matters of the law’ they lead us into the very heart of the covenant between God and Israel: Israel, as bride of God, should be characterized more by these three qualities, than by the ritual sacrifices in the Temple. These three qualities give value to the exterior sacrifice, rather than vice versa. Hosea mentions only ‘mercy’, but in truth the three qualities are inseparable.

In order to understand the central role of judgment, mercy, and fidelity in the covenant, it will be helpful to turn to the original Hebrew expressions. The English words have become rather vague, bland, and abstract; the original Hebrew expressions (mishpat, chesed, and emeth), in the context of the covenant, were much richer and concrete in their meaning.

First, judgment is mishpat. We can think of the people of Israel bringing their disputes and conflicts before Moses, through whom God gave the law to the people, or before Solomon, the greatest of the kings of Israel. The wise divinely enlightened judge (Moses or Solomon) would give a judgment (misphat) to resolve the case. The right judgment establishes justice (zedek) concretely in the here and now situation.

Other judges would render their judgments more by applying the justice of the law of Moses to the concrete situations of the disputes before them. (cf. Ex 18:13-27; Dt 1:9-18)

Mishpat then comes to name the quality a person possesses that enables him to render judgment in various difficult and complicated situations. Misphat enables the person either to perceive or bring to light what is right in even the hidden or less than obvious situations.

Solomon exemplifies mishpat when the two prostitutes bring their case before the king. Each of them had recently given birth a newborn, but one of whom had their baby die in the night and both of whom claim the remaining baby as their own. By proposing to divide the living baby in two with a sword Solomon brings to light the character of each of the two women by the way they respond to his test. He then judges that the woman who prefers the life of the baby to her own possession of the baby is the one who deserves to be the mother. (1 Kgs 3:16-28) Note that this human mishpat comes close to imitating the mishpat of God who searches and judges the hearts and minds of men.

We might perhaps be able to translate the quality of mishpat as ‘discernment’. Discernment/misphat is a quality needed by a person who is to live in fidelity to the covenant. Only by means of discernment can a person recognize the concrete demands of the covenant in all the complex and difficult situations of life. Only by means of discernment can a person not just ‘mean well’ but actually do what is just and right. The higher a person’s position and the greater his responsibility, the more he stands in need of mishpat or discernment.

In the Old Testament, Moses (who spoke to God upon the mountain top) and Solomon (who received from God the gift of wisdom to judge his people) are the ones who more than anyone else exemplify quality of mishpat. Their example shows us that mishpat requires that a person be illumined by divine grace. Yet, the divine illumination works hand in hand with the effort at hard thinking.

The Gospel of St. Matthew opens with an example of this collaboration between hard thinking and divine grace. First, St. Joseph thinks things through the best he can in the light of God’s law, but in order to make the right decision regarding his spouse, the Virgin Mary, he needs the illumination that comes to him from the angel in the dream. (cf. Mt. 1:18-25)

One of the great mistakes that many religious people make is thinking that they can simply act and do the right thing on the basis of a sort of spontaneous instinct or emotion without any need for the hard work of thinking and discernment on their own part. (Next, “Who am I to Judge?”)




Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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