Proverbs 22:8-9 & 22-23, Psalm 146, James 2:1-17, Mark 7:24-30
Although it's an Arabic news service, the Al Jazeera website reported the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi in very even-handed terms. On the one hand it reported the outrage of the victims' families in America, from where the vast majority of the 270 victims of the Lockerbie bombing came. Most of them still believe that al-Megrahi was responsible for the attack, which was the worst terrorist incident in UK history, and they felt that the welcome celebrations when he arrived home in Tripoli after his release from prison simply added further insult to their injury. On the other hand, Al Jazeera also reported the reaction of ordinary Libyans like Tarek Khalifah - a shopkeeper near Tripoli's fish market - who said, 'I believe he's an innocent man whom God wanted to set free so that he may live out his last days with his family. By his coming home, we think justice is now really served.' Libyans, you see, believe it was agents of another country - perhaps Iran or Syria - who bombed the airliner, in retaliation for the shooting down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US warship.
Let's set on one side the issue of whether or not Mr al-Megrahi is innocent, though as the mother of one of the victims said, that cannot help but colour our views about his release. But let's instead concentrate on the ethical and theological issues which the story raised and see what it might have to teach us about the nature of God's justice and mercy. For God was certainly part of the story. Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill explained his decision by saying, 'Those who have been bereaved cannot be expected to forget, let alone forgive. Their pain runs deep and the wounds remain. However, Mr al Megrahi now faces a sentence imposed by a higher power. It is one that no court, in any jurisdiction, in any land, could revoke or overrule. It is terminal, final and irrevocable. He is going to die.'
On Radio 4's Today Programme Kenny MacAskill was invited to unpack what he meant. I'd never heard of Mr MacAskill before this episode but The Glasgow Herald says that he's normally 'swift-talking, exuberant and quick-to-joke' but he doesn't normally 'do God', as Campbell once put it, or mention 'higher powers'. So you could almost hear the cogs whirring as Mr AlisdairMacAskill thought to himself, 'Now, how can I answer this question without upsetting people of faith, and people without faith, and pagans, and so on? He sounded increasingly uncomfortable as first he explained that people of faith would believe that al-Megrahi would have to answer to a higher power after his death, and then that al-Megrahi's imminent death from cancer was also a sort of natural justice verdict, whether you were a person of faith or not. 'Do you mean to say,' said John Humphreys, 'That his illness is a punishment inflicted on him by Nature for his crimes?'
I can't remember how Kenny MacAskill answered that question, but let's immediately lay to rest what is a totally daft idea. If everyone who gets terminal cancer is being punished by a 'higher power' there must be a lot of very guilty people out there in the world! And what about all the murderers and terrorists who don't suffer a premature death but enjoy a long and healthy life? We can't rely on Nature to impose justice, nor can we expect God to use Nature as part of a toolkit of suitable punishments. Jesus himself was asked to explain why some people had been killed in Jerusalem when a tower fell on them and crushed them, and he totally rejected the idea that they were being punished by God for some sin. If people get cancer, and it proves to be terminal, that is just because of environmental or genetic factors that have nothing to do with justice being meted out for individual actions.
What we can say, however, is that both Christians and Muslims believe that all human beings are answerable to standards of justice and mercy which are given to us by a higher power. We are supposed to try to live by those standards and, when we die, those values still continue to apply and have eternal significance.
But in his statements and interviews about the release of Abdel Basset al-Megrahi Mr said something else which was interesting to people of faith. He said that it was "intrinsic to the Scottish national identity to demonstrate values of forgiveness and compassion. 'We are a people who pride ourselves on our humanity,' he insisted. 'It is a defining characteristic of Scotland and the Scottish people. The perpetration of an atrocity and outrage cannot and should not be a basis for losing sight of who we are, the values we seek to uphold, and the faith and beliefs by which we seek to live.'" Here I think Kenny MacAskillMacAskill was on solid Biblical ground, for isn't this exactly what the Letter of James has to say? 'Mercy triumphs over judgement.'
Justice has to be tempered by compassion, otherwise we become as bad as the people who convince themselves that they are somehow doing God's will when they blow airliners out of the sky, or blow themselves up on underground trains and buses. Their view is that, if a few hundred sinners have to die in order to advance their understanding of God's justice, so be it. No doubt we would want to reject their idea of what is just and right. But I think what ultimate proves they are in the wrong is that theirs is a form of justice without compassion. God's justice is not meted out with pure white hot anger, it is always meted out with an eye to compassion and mercy, because - whether or not these things are intrinsic to the nature of Scottishness - they certainly are intrinsic to the nature of God.
So let's take a closer look at today's lectionary readings and see what else they have to reveal about the nature of God's justice and mercy.
The passage from Proverbs is not really about forensic justice, the process of bringing offenders before a judge and deciding how to punish them, although '[crushing] the afflicted at the gate' does refer to the sort of civil law proceedings which - in ancient Israel - were dealt with by the elders of the community meeting to hear cases at the town gate. But really these proverbs are about a different kind of justice - the social and economic kind. They're about treating the poor with generosity and integrity. If the proverbs speak to today's headlines, they relate not to the continued fall-out from the Lockerbie Bombing but to the way we are handling the recession. Some of the people who helped to cause the credit crunch seem to have got off pretty lightly, whereas many innocent people working in industry and the service sector have been experiencing bankruptcy or unemployment. These verses are a warning to the regulators and the financiers: 'Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.' But is this because God will bring calamity down upon their heads? No, I think the context makes clear that they will bring calamity upon themselves.
'The rod of anger will fail' is an odd expression and perhaps not a very helpful translation. Apparently, it means that the power of the rich person's anger will no longer have any impact when they get their just desserts. Sir Fred The Shred Goodwin had a reputation for ruthlessness, but now executives who claim that they felt cowed into silence by his attitude have been coming out of the woodwork to cast aspersions on his management style. Whether or not that's fair, it seems 'the rod of his anger has failed'. He's no longer capable of shredding his competitors or opponents.
God may not bring punishment upon people directly when they're guilty of oppressing the poor, but he does 'plead the cause' of the oppressed, so in that sense the wealthy and the unjust will have to answer for their actions to a higher power.
Those who are disappointed with the way our economy has been handled, or with the decision to release Abdel Basset al-Megrahi, will concur with the Psalmists warning 'not to put [our] trust in princes' or politicians. But the Psalmist definitely believes in the 'higher power' which Kenny MacAskill alluded to in his news release. He tells us that God 'executes justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, lifts up those who are bowed down, loves the righteous, upholds the orphan and the widow, and [brings] the way of the wicked to ruin.' The trouble is that these things don't always happen in the world as know it, so perhaps even the Psalmist is referring to the final and irrevocable verdict at the end of time, when God's will is at last going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Not only that, but sometimes the act of setting the prisoner free can conflict with upholding the orphan and the widow, at least in the way they would expect to be upheld, so what seems at first like a very straightforward and idealistic picture of justice is actually much more complicated than we might imagine
The writer of the Letter of James talks about our willingness to make superficial judgements, like the young woman on a recent Channel 4 programme who set out to 'snare a millionaire' on the assumption that this would be the surest way of finding her very own Prince Charming. But the real Prince Charmings of this world are just as likely to be poor. In fact, the writer says that rich people are more likely than poor people to be good for nothing and that God has the opposite kind of bias - a bias in favour of the poor. We might feel, of course, that the writer's vision of the poor is just as romanticised as the vision of millionaires in the TV programme, and that it's wrong - as he himself concedes - to show partiality to anyone.
In the film 'Pretty Woman' Richard Gere - who is playing a business tycoon - gives the Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts, a couple of thousand dollars to buy herself a chic new outfit to wear. She goes into a shop wear they sell posh frocks, but because she's wearing some pretty cheap and nasty clothes they refuse to serve her. Instead, she has to get Richard Gere, in his sharp and expensive suit, to go shopping with her - and he takes her to a different shop where she's soon kitted out in all kind sof elegant clothes. Afterwards she goes back to the first shop, laden with carrier bags and wearing one of her new designer dresses. 'Do you remember me?' she asks. 'I'm the person you refused to serve. Big mistake. Huge!'
If we want to act justly we must try to love all of our neighbours, everyone we meet, rich and poor, as much as we love ourselves. We wouldn't expect to be judged on superficial appearances, like how we dress or how we speak. We would expect to be given the benefit of the doubt when we meet a stranger. and that is what everyone else deserves from us.
The writer also goes on to say that if we commit murder we are behaving just as badly as someone who commits adultery, which is rather an odd way of putting things, isn't it? Surely, if he wants to insist that all sins are equally wicked we'd expect him to put that comparison the other way round: if we commit adultery it's no better - in God's eyes - than committing murder! The point is, perhaps, that we shouldn't be too quick to condemn another person, even someone like Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi, unless we are sure that we have done nothing wrong ourselves. And, in case we are inclined to think that we lead pretty blameless lives, without much murder and mayhem, he reminds us that failing to help the victims of a natural disaster, or failing to make sure that people get a living wage for their work, can be just as deadly as committing actual murder. Even faith in God will not save us in these circumstances, because it clearly isn't sincere. If we've not shown mercy to the voiceless and the powerless, even when we only saw them fleetingly on our television screens, no mercy will be shown to us in that final reckoning which Kenny MacAskill described.
And so we come finally to the Gospel reading. Here we see Jesus being reminded by a foreign woman, from the Lebanon, that she too deserves to be treated justly, even though he seems to see his first priority as trying to persuade Jewish people to repent. Some people think that Jesus is actually quite rude and dismissive to the woman, he does after all imply that she is no better than a dog. According to this way of thinking, her persistence challenged his own ingrained prejudice and led him to change his mind and broaden his mission to include Gentiles. Against this interpretation, however, is the fact that Jesus has already praised the faith of gentile people who sought his help, and the fact that elsewhere he always shows compassion to those in need. It would actually be against the teaching of the Scriptures which he knew and loved to suggest that God does not care for and watch over strangers every bit as much as he cares for the Jewish people. We have seen that sentiment already in Psalm 146. So some scholars wonder if he was being ironic, and quoting the sort of Pharisaic attitude that - at heart - he condemned, in order to elicit a better understanding of what God is like.
Be that as it may, the story reinforces the message of the Letter of James. If we want to receive mercy and compassion for our own misdeeds, if we want our faith in the saving power of Jesus to be effective for us when - at last - we are judged by a higher power, we have to live a life that reflects the mercy and compassion that has been shown to us on the cross.
This summer the faith communities of our region published a report, 'Grace and Generosity', which shows that volunteers from the different faith communities in our region contribute help and support for people in need that's equivalent to hundreds of millions of pounds each year. The reason people do this is in response to the grace and generosity which they feel they receive from God, and because they feel God is challenging them to give their time generously to other. As Christians, We have to live as Jesus lived when he went about doing good and showing mercy and compassion to those he met who were in need, whether they were oppressed or hungry, blind or bowed down, strangers, widows, orphans - or even prisoners, like the man who died beside him on Golgotha. 'Today you will be with me in Paradise,' he told the penitent criminal. Will that, I wonder, be the final verdict of Jesus when he meets Abdel Bassett al-Megrahi? Will it be his verdict upon us?