Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Tim Keller and Making Mercy an Entitlement

In Generous Justice, Pastor Tim Keller fittingly argues that we have a biblical obligation to do justice on behalf of the poor (especially for all the vulnerable and needy). However, in making his case, he wrongly equates justice with mercy and argues that to do justice is to be merciful and to be merciful is to do justice:

  • The mishpat, or justness, of a society, according to the Bible, is evaluated by how it treats these [marginalized and vulnerable] groups. Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely at lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. This is what it means to “do justice.” (4-5)
While God requires both justice and mercy from us, these complementary principles are distinct. We are entitled to justice as a human right. Keller rightly cites the fact that there should be one law for both Israelites and alien. God required that both receive equal treatment under the law. The fact that all are created in the image of God makes justice an entitlement.

This might illustrate the distinction between mercy and justice. A judge, constrained by the law to treat everyone justly and equally, is also free to throw a party and discriminate. He could be merciful to some and not to others. He could invite some of the poor but not all of the poor. Those poor who were not invited could not protest, “You have violated our rights by not inviting us.” Instead, the judge is free to invite whomever he so pleases to invite. This is not a matter of justice but of mercy. Therefore, the poor cannot insist that the judge hadn’t been just with them, as he must be in the court.

Jesus told a parable about a landowner who had invited some unemployed to come work for Him. He promised them a denarius. However, later He hired others to work in His vineyard but for a much shorter time. However, at the end of the day, He gave all of His workers the same pay.

The ones who had worked the longest protested that this was not just. However, He explained that He had been just and had given them the exact amount that they had agreed on. Therefore, they had no reason to complain. However, there was also a matter of mercy:

  • “I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you.  Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:13-15)
Justice and mercy are two different things. Justice gives a person what they deserve – what they are entitled to. Mercy gives a person what he is not entitled to!

This distinction should be obvious. Justice requires God to destroy all humanity, because this is what we deserve: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). While justice requires death, mercy gives life. Because mercy is discriminate and not an entitlement, God is free to be merciful to whomever (Romans 9:18). There is nothing that compels Him to save all, but He must be just to all. However, no one can accuse Him of injustice, although they can charge that He hasn’t been even handed in giving mercy.

How then does Keller attempt to eliminate the distinction between mercy and justice, making them both an entitlement? He cites a number of verses where mercy and justice are mentioned side-by-side:

  • “If I have denied justice [mishpat] to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me?... If I have denied the desires of the poor or let the eyes of the widow grow weary, if I have kept my bread to myself, not sharing it with the fatherless— but from my youth I reared them as a father would, and from my birth I guided the widow— if I have seen anyone perishing for lack of clothing, or the needy without garments, and their hearts did not bless me for warming them with the fleece from my sheep, if I have raised my hand against the fatherless, knowing that I had influence in court, then let my arm fall from the shoulder, let it be broken off at the joint… then these also would be sins to be judged, for I would have been unfaithful to God on high.” (Job 31:13-28) 
Job correctly recognized a connection between justice and mercy, that both are mandated by God and complementary. However, mentioning justice and mercy together doesn’t mean that they are the same thing.

Keller recognizes that many will object to his thesis:

  • Many readers might be asking at this point why we are calling private giving to the poor “justice”… In English, however, the word “charity” conveys a good but optional activity. Charity cannot be a requirement, for then it would not be charity. But this view does not fit in with the strength or balance of the Biblical teaching. (15). 
Keller is correct that charity, in general, is not optional. However, we are free to exercise discernment regarding to whom we will be charitable. Not so with justice! He therefore argues that:

  • In Scripture, gifts to the poor are called “acts of righteousness,” as in Matthew 6:1-2.
Here, Keller attempts to equate mercy (“gifts”) with justice (“acts of righteousness”). However, these verses fail to support Keller’s case. Although “acts of righteousness” – giving – is mandated, we are free to exercise discernment and to not give.

Keller also cites several other verses in support (Ezekiel 18:5-8; Deut. 10:18-19; Isaiah 58:6-7). While it is probable that these verses reference the two concepts of mercy and justice together, they do not explicitly say that they are the same thing. Instead, this association seems to show that we must be both just and merciful. (16-17)

Contrary to Keller’s case, there are many verses that reflect the fact that maintaining the poor at a certain material level is not mandated:

  • He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son. (Proverbs 10:5)
  • Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in forced labor. (Proverbs 12:24)
  • A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied. (Proverbs 13:4) 
  • One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys. (Proverbs 18:9)
None of these verses suggest that the lazy or slothful are entitled to support. In fact, numerous verses instruct against giving support:

  • For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: "If a man will not work, he shall not eat." (2 Thes. 3:10)
  • As for younger widows, do not put them on such a [support] list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry. Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge. (1 Tim. 5:11-12)
While justice is an entitlement - a human right – mercy is not. While the poor can insist that they are owed justice, they cannot insist that they are owed an income. Instead mercy was to be exercised discriminately, compassionately, and thoughtfully.

This distinction is not merely academic. Violent passions and church divisions ride upon it. The Occupy Movement believes that they are entitled to the money of others. They decry the riches of the “one percent” and even talk violently against them, as if they have committed a great injustice. (Sometimes, it is a matter of injustice. But if this is so, then it must be mediated by the courts or new laws must be passed to protect the poor. However, the Occupiers never seemed able to articulate what the new laws should look like.) However, it seems obvious that their vehemence is not restricted to just these one percent.

From where do their threats come? They have been told that they are entitled to more, and that they have been unjustly cheated by the rich. While poverty is sometimes a matter of justice, it is not always so. It might instead be the product of other causes, including laziness.

It is therefore important to exercise discernment and wisdom. Many entitlement programs have actually hurt those who were supposed to be helped by them, creating dependency and an angry entitlement mentality:

  • We hardly need another polemic about the failure of America’s “war on poverty.” After decades of bitter wrangling and torpid inaction, there is at last a broad consensus that the welfare system is a cure no less malignant than the disease it was intended to remedy. Liberals and conservatives, politicians and program administrators, social workers and taxpayers have all been forced to acknowledge that the poor are not best served by our current lumbering and impersonal entitlement bureaucracy. They never have been. They never will be. On this, we now all agree.
  • If the poor are to be equipped with the tools of self-reliance and initiative, they must first restore family ties and community connections that have been sundered by privation and irresponsibility. Promiscuous philanthropy does little to solve the long-term dilemmas of social disintegration. It is little surprise then that programs that emphasize personal accountability, family responsibility, and community cooperation are much more likely to succeed than programs that simply dispense aid as sheer entitlements. 
When mercy, like justice, becomes an entitlement, it is no longer mercy!


Despite the above critique, Keller makes an excellent case for legalizing additional protections for the marginalized based upon the concern that God shows for them in the Bible. Here are just of few of the safeguards that our Lord has put into place:

1. JUBILEE - The land returns to its original owners after 49 years. This would provide the poor with a means of support.

2. LAW OF THE GLEANER - The poor could harvest the land of the wealthy after the initial harvest.

3. SABBATH YEAR - The slaves go free!

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