On Mercy and Justice

by St. Basil the Great (or a follower)

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The following text, often attributed to St. Basil the Great, is now regarded by some scholars as the work of one of Basil’s followers. This translation is the work of C. Paul Schroeder and is included in his collection of St. Basil’s writings On Social Justice, newly published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

The world that forgets God, brothers and sisters, is ruled by injustice toward neighbors and inhumanity toward the weak. As the Apostle Paul says, “Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Rom 1:28-30) God restores such people to proper reverence, teaching them to abstain from evil and pursue mercy toward their neighbors. Just as the Prophet Isaiah, speaking on behalf of God, taught, “Cease to do evil, learn to do good.” (Is 1:16-17) The Mosaic Law also contained many commandments regarding not harming one’s neighbor, as well as many precepts enjoining kindness and mercy. If someone abandons the practice of the one, the other will not suffice for that person’s restoration. Acts of charity made from unjust gains are not acceptable to God, nor are those who refrain from injustice praiseworthy if they do not share what they have. It is written concerning those who commit injustice and then attempt to offer gifts to God, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord.” (Prov 15:8) With regard to those who fail to show mercy, however, it says, “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” (Prov 21:13)

It is for this reason that Proverbs instructs, “Honor the Lord with your just labors, and offer as first fruits your righteous works.” (Prov 3:9 LXX) But if you plan to make an offering to God out of the fruits of injustice and exploitation, you should know that it would be better for you neither to possess such things nor to make any offering from them. A pure gift gives wings to prayer; as it is written, “The prayers of the upright are acceptable to God.” (Prov 3:9 LXX) Conversely, if you possess what you have as a result of just labor, yet make no offerings to God for the support of the poor, exploitation is reckoned against you, according to what was spoken by the prophet Malachi, “The first fruits and tithes remain in your possession, and the gains of exploitation shall be in your house.” (Mal 3:8, 10 LXX)

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It is therefore necessary for you to blend mercy and justice, possessing with justice and dispensing with mercy, according to what is written, “Preserve mercy and justice, and ever draw near to God.” (Hos 12:6 LXX) God loves mercy and justice; therefore, the one who practices mercy and justice draws near to God. It follows that every person should make a thorough self-examination. The rich should carefully consider their means, from which they intend to make offerings, in order to make certain that they have not wielded power over the poor, or used force against the weak, or committed extortion against those in a subordinate position. We are commanded to maintain justice and equity even toward slaves. Do not use force because you rule, nor commit extortion because you are able to do so, but show the qualities of justice even while the means of authority are available to you. It is no proof of reverence for God if you obey when you cannot do otherwise, but rather when you have the ability to transgress, and do not. If, after taking what belongs to the poor, you give back to the poor, you should know that it would have been better if you had neither extorted from them nor given to them.

Why do you taint your wealth, contaminating it with unjust gains? Why do you make your offering an abomination, attempting to show mercy to one poor person by offering what you have taken from another through injustice? Show mercy rather to the one you have wronged. Lavish your kindness on that person; give to the one you have wronged, and you will fulfill mercy with justice. God has nothing to do with greed; neither is the Lord a companion of thieves and extortioners. It is not because God is powerless to feed the poor that he has left them for us to care for, but rather because he desires that we should be fruitful in justice and kindness through our own good works.

Mercy does not come from injustice, nor blessing from a curse, nor goodness from tears. God says to those who cause the tears of the oppressed, “What I hate, you do; you cover my altar with tears, weeping and groaning.” (Mal 2:13 LXX) Show mercy from your own earnings, and not from injustice; do not even think of bringing unjust gains to God under the pretext of showing mercy. Such displays are empty glory. They focus on the things that bring human praise, not the praise that comes from God. For this reason, the Lord well said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them.” (Mt 6:1) If you wish to perform works of mercy in the sight of God, take care not to do so out of greedy gains, knowing that God takes no joy in beholding such things.

This is the reason we perform works of mercy: in order to receive back mercy from God. God gives back to those he approves, and he approves no greedy person. Gifts offered to God are no gifts at all if in acquiring them you have made your brother or sister sorrowful. The Lord says, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Lk 19:9) Remember Zacchaeus the tax collector, who proposed to give back fourfold if he had defrauded anyone of anything, as well as distributing half of his remaining possessions to the poor. He wished to receive Christ as a guest, and he knew that Christ would not accept his extravagance towards the poor unless he first gave back the gains taken from others through injustice. Thus, Christ also received his sincere amendment, and said, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” (Lk 19:9.) This example was given for all those who do works of mercy, but do not first seek to reestablish equity. But to those who guard against injustice while neglecting to practice mercy, it is said, “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Mt 3:10) Such a tree will never be pleasing to the heavenly gardener, who said, “I came seeking fruit and found none,” and thus commanded that it should be cut down, so as not to use up the soil. (Cf. Lk 13:6-9)

It is also apparent that anyone who does not return an item taken from the poor as a pledge is condemned by God; a terrible judgment is pronounced against such a person: “The one who has not received back a pledge will cry out to me, and I will listen, for I am merciful.” (Ex 22:27 LXX) According to the Law, it was not permitted to glean one’s fields, or make a second pass through the vineyards, or thoroughly beat the fruit from the olive trees. (Cf. Deut. 24:19-22) These were to be left for the poor.

If such commands were given to those under the Law, what shall we say of those who are in Christ? To them the Lord says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20) For this reason, the Apostle exhorts us to give to those who have nothing not only out of our crops and produce, but also from the works of our hands. “Do good work with your hands, so that you may have something to give to those in need.” (Eph 4:28)

To those who wished to follow him, the Lord introduced the practice of selling all one’s property for the benefit of the poor, and so to follow him in this way. To his perfect followers, he enjoined the entire and complete fulfillment of mercy, so that, having finished their service to others by means of possessions, they might embark upon service by means of word and spirit. To the rest, he ordained allotment and sharing of what they have, so that in this way they might be seen as imitators of the kindness of God, showing mercy and giving and sharing. As the Scripture says, “Give, and it will be given to you.” ( Lk 6:38)

By such acts God promised that they would become his companions. These are the ones who stand at the Lord’s right hand, to whom the King says when he appears, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and in prison, and you came to me.” (Mt 25:34-36) Then the righteous will be amazed and say, “When did we do this for you, Lord?” And he will say to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.”

Eagerness to serve holy people is accounted as reverence for Christ, and the one who eagerly ministers to the poor is shown to be a companion of Christ. This is the case not only of those who divest themselves of a great amount, but also of those who bring forward some small thing, even if they give only a cup of cold water because he is a disciple. (Cf. Mt 10:42) The disciples’ poverty, as the world considers it, is an opportunity for you to acquire true wealth, you rich people. Through such actions you will become co-workers of Christ. You feed soldiers of Christ, and do so freely, not under any compulsion. The Heavenly King does not use compulsion, nor does he demand payment, but accepts those who serve eagerly, so that in giving they may receive, and in showing honor they may be honored, and in sharing what is temporal they may be invited to share in what is eternal.

These things should be a constant reminder to us; we should place them before the very eyes of our soul, so that we may not neglect the opportune moment, nor pass over the present time, waiting for some other chance, lest we should be lost in the end on account of our hesitation and delaying. May the Lord grant that we may be found fruitful and vigilant, mindful of his commands, ready and unimpeded at his glorious appearing; in Christ himself our God, to whom be glory, might, and honor, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and always, and forever and ever.

What will you answer to the Judge? You gorgeously array your walls, but you do not clothe your fellow human beings. You adorn horses, but turn away from the shameful plight of your brother and sister. You allow grain to rot in your barns, but do not feed those who are starving. You hide gold in the earth, but ignore the oppressed!
St. Basil the Great, “To the Rich”

Winter Issue IC 55 2010
IN COMMUNION 55 / FEAST OF ST. BASIL THE GREAT / JANUARY 2010