Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth

Christmas:  Mary’s Merciful Song of Justice
by Jan Johnson

If someone told you this website focused on justice, would you have expected it to be biting and preachy?  That the background would reflect a cold, stainless steel look?  That the webmaster would be a stern person who never cracked a smile?

This severe, hard-bitten view of justice is all too familiar to us. We hear about balancing deeds of justice with acts of mercy as if there were a quota system for each or a magical formula to know when to do what. For example, when my children were young, I questioned myself continually, asking, Is this a moment to show justice by presenting consequences? Or a moment to show mercy by working around their silly demands? It can get confusing: We know how to be tough;  we know how to be tender. But how do we know when to do what?

This separate but equal view of justice and mercy was not the view of Mary, the mother of Jesus in her song of justice, The Magnificat (Luke 2:46-55).  Instead, she wove the two attributes together into a stunning seamless garment.

    His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm;  he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  He has brought down the powerful from their thronesand lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors,  to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

    (Luke 2:50-56, italicized phrases speak of mercy;  underlined phrases speak of justice)

This wise young Galilean woman didn’t diminish justice into a crusading moment of goodness or water down mercy into weak gestures of kindness. As the lowly were lifted up and the hungry filled, the tides of economic culture would be tipped so that the proud hearted would be scattered, the powerful brought down, and the rich emptied. The dominant, authoritative ones would be turned around in their boots.  (Perhaps this what God mercifully knew they needed to come to themselves.)

Mary understood that the sort of justice God dispenses flows with mercy because it reverses life’s unfair circumstances, as we know them. This penchant God has for turning the tables upside down is often called the Great Inversion, which has been described this way:

There are none in the humanly ‘down’ position so low that they cannot be lifted up by entering God’s order, and none in the humanly ‘up’ position so high that they can disregard God’s point of view on their lives. The barren, the widow, the orphan, the eunuch, the alien, all models of human hopelessness, are fruitful and secure in God’s care. 

Yet this Great Inversion is not God’s arbitrary attempt to level the playing field, but an offer of hope to those who have been denied hope and a challenge to trust to those who have not been forced to trust.

True justice is not distinct from mercy, but is rooted in mercy. In God’s economy, justice and mercy often appear in tandem: "Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another” (Zec. 7:9). Jesus scolded the carefully righteous, spice-rack tithing Pharisees for neglecting the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Matt. 23:23). Grace (mercy) and truth (justice) made easy companions in the Word, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

One small image of this empowering combination of tough mercy and gentle justice is Bilbo Baggins’ small shirt of mail that he lent to Frodo in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  This inner garment was made of mithral so that it was strong enough to not allow a sword to pierce it but pliable enough to be worn at all times, even to be slept in. Overall, it was beautiful besides, just as Mary was joyful in it all: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

How this amalgamation of justice and mercy helps us!  We no longer have to wonder if this is a moment to be tough or tender.  It’s always a moment to be tough and tender because justice and mercy play off each other: justice is rooted in mercy and mercy often results in a surprising blaze of justice. What is now called toughlove is not hard-hearted, but full-hearted, watching for faith and honoring it whenever it is found, hoping not to punish folks into oblivion but to pull them back with grace. That picture frequently drawn of the Hebrew Scripture’s God who dispensed justice but neglected mercy was not true:  “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways” (Ezek 33:11).


Mary also understood that God’s penchant for reversing circumstances would become personal for her. God was not a bureaucrat, willing to invert circumstances only for the welfare of nations. Instead, God becomes deeply involved in the lives of individuals God creates and loves.

Even before Mary had to flee to Egypt as a political refugee, she knew that Judean Jews looked down on Galilean Jews as impure, backward, poor and ignorant because Galilee was situated along popular trade routes of the time. Its traditions, languages and lineages were influenced by the diverse people passing through. Galilee was miles away from Jerusalem and from the temple, where the holy and consequential events occurred. Yet the message of the angel was that the divine Messiah would not come from the exalted, pedigreed Jerusalem area, but from her “tainted” Galilean territory and her impoverished Nazarene household-to-be. So God’s topsy-turvy way of dealing with folks was real to her.  Once again, God was creating an “unthinkable turn in human destinies when all seemed impossible”:

    My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  for the Mighty One has done great things for me,  and holy is his name.

    (Luke 2:46-49;  italicized words and phrase indicate personal dealings)

One gracious upshot of understanding that God blends justice and mercy is a willingness to trust God, to want this God to “dwell in my heart through faith.” I begin to believe that God really does make all things work for “good” and that perhaps this “good” isn’t some brutal thing that will chafe and annoy me, but a goodness sweet to the tongue.  It makes me want to jump on board with this God and abide there. As I do, I explore the nuances of mercy and justice in each situation, seeing that God isn’t on one person’s side, but on everyone’s side, weaving justice and mercy through each circumstance.


Still another stunning upshot of God’s merciful justice – and one that Mary included in her song– is that it imparts strength. She pictured this through the ancient metaphor of God’s strong arm: “He has shown strength with his arm.” Based on how she seemed to be steeped in Scripture, she no doubt knew that God’s strong arm had been credited with freeing the Israelite slaves from the oppression of slavery in Egypt (Deut. 4:34; 5:15; 7:19; 11:2). Perhaps she sat and relished how Isaiah pictured God as “the one who put within them his holy spirit, who caused his glorious arm to march at the right hand of Moses . . .?” (Isa. 63:13).  I imagine her picturing God’s glorious arm alongside her arm holding on to the donkey and then holding on to her baby in the cold stable. That strong arm empowered her and gave her a place so enriched that “from now on all generations will call [her]blessed.”

God’s strength and power played itself out in Mary in many ways. Much has been said about her role as mother to Jesus, and that must have been an empowering one indeed, but consider her roles afterward. People conclude that Jesus relinquished the care of his mother to John during the crucifixion because this poor Galilean woman would need the financial resources of John, a son of a rich Capernaum fishing magnate. Yes, that was obviously important, but wouldn’t this “son of thunder,” who would soon lose his big brother James in martyrdom, need as an advisor and friend someone who “pondered things in her heart”?  Wouldn’t this man who would one day word in Holy Scripture his ponderings on Jesus’ life, on living a life of love here on earth, and on the glorious life to come, need to learn how to “treasure words,” as she did? My hunch is that Jesus wanted John to take Mary into his home so Mary could interact with John daily. I wonder if Jesus wanted Mary to know and empower John’s mother (whom we might nickname “Mama Thunder” for her chutzpah in begging for recognition for her sons) and lead her into a new understanding of just mercy. Perhaps this arrangement was not one-sided. Who took care of whom?  I believe they empowered each other in different ways.

 Later, Mary’s sturdy style of mercy showed itself in the way she became a leader of sorts in the early church. When we see her for the last time in Scripture, she is praying with the apostles gathered in Jerusalem (Acts 1:12-14). She became a figure who was never far from the center of action, always mindful of “the promise [God] made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

And so her song challenges us: learn about how God blends mercy and justice; be a personal participant in God’s Great Inversion; let the available strength and power flow through us to others.  We gulp because we have no idea how to enact such high-concept obedience.


 Fortunately, Mary’s song also provides a hands-on, how-to clue about how to live out radical justice steeped with tender mercy: offering a voice to those who have been rendered voiceless.  To speak on their behalf retrains us to spend ourselves for justice while flowing with mercy instead of just getting mad (merciless justice) or rescuing indiscriminately (justiceless mercy).

 Who are the voiceless? Mary spoke of the lowly and the hungry, but she also (as a Galilean woman) was voiceless in her day. Anyone who falls lower on the cultural ladder than others are voiceless because they are not usually seen or heard. Voiceless folks are kept quiet because of their power-down positions in society: 

  • children as opposed to adults;
  • women as opposed to men;
  • minority races as opposed to majority races;
  • poor as opposed to middle class;  middle class as opposed to rich;
  • poorly paid as opposed to those who are highly paid;
  • less intelligent as opposed to the more intelligent;
  • labor as opposed to management;
  • blue collar as opposed to professional.

When voiceless folks do speak up, no one takes them seriously because they don't have the status, money, age or sometimes know-how to command respect. Overlooking and ignoring them does them an injustice and refuses them mercy.


Mary’s example urges us to tag along behind God in lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things. We are to pay attention to their plight (offering justice) and be present to their person (showing mercy). Our interaction with them is vital for our faith: it gives hope; it tests our automatic responses and normal gestures of respect; it teaches us to love as almost nothing else can.

My training ground in this occurs on Monday mornings working at the shower desk at the Samaritan Center (a drop-in center for the homeless). There I fold towels, do laundry, and hang out with folks who own less than would fill a small corner of my garage. Yet they’re always saying, “I’ll get by.” In their presence, I (the long-time, learned Christian who teaches regularly on faith) lack faith. I stand at the Center’s shower desk seeing, hearing, and touching faith that is greater than my own. I return home enriched.

One of the manifestations of offering a voice to the voiceless I’ve learned is respect. Respect offers justice in that a voice spoken is a voice heard; it offers mercy because so few are willing to hear that voice. Dorothy Day told this story:

    I had occasion to visit the City Shelter last month, where homeless families are cared for.  I sat there for a couple of hours contemplating poverty and destitution in a family. Two of the children were asleep in the parents’ arms and four others were sprawling against them. Another young couple were also waiting, the mother pregnant.  I did not want to appear to be spying since all I was there for was the latest news on apartment-finding possibilities for homeless families.  So I made myself known to the young man in charge.  He apologized for having let me sit there; he’d thought, he explained, that I was ‘just one of the clients.’”

While I too have been made to wait because I’ve been mistaken for being “just one of the clients” by police, social workers or the public health nurse, I’ve also been the one dismissing folks. I’ve caught myself feeling free to be rude to clients, to interrupt them while they’re talking.  I’ve walked in front of clients without excusing myself, as I would never do with anyone else. I cringe to think that in the beginning of my years there I spoke a little more loudly to clients with poor English. (Now I warn new volunteers by teasing them: “They’re not deaf—only Latino.”)  God’s voice murmurs to me as I work: “Do you see me within this person? I am here. Love me.”

All of this speaks enormously to me about how to practice a life woven with justice and mercy. It’s only after seven years of volunteering that I can respond to a rare client who is loud and abrasive by saying in a soft voice: “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you talk to me that way.  If it continues, you’ll have to leave.”  The odd mixture of justice and mercy often confuses them. They’re used to being either yelled at or catered to.

In the early days, I snapped back. Then after a few years, I tried to be saintly by saying nothing, but fuming silently. Mixing toughness and tenderness has only come by hearing their voices and honoring their presence as I practice God’s presence within.


Sometimes we’re asked to follow Mary’s lead even further and speak up to family, friends, and church members about giving a voice to the voiceless. Whether this is a response to their comment about a bag lady or a suggestion to a group that wants to serve, we speak up for the plight of the voiceless.  What works best, I believe, is telling stories.  I don’t have to preach or pontificate, but I can tell about heart-wrenching acts clients do for each other or volunteers do when no one is looking (naming no names).

But justice must permeate these merciful descriptions. We speak with integrity, without glorifying involuntary poverty. While acknowledging that many clients have made poor life choices, we still advocate mercy in the midst of justice. Seeing and hearing about acts of just mercy awaken folks from their numbness as nothing else does. 

In this way, we join Mary in her song because “we need always to be thinking and writing about [poverty], for if we are not among its victims its reality fades from us,” wrote Dorothy Day. “We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it.” Quoting her Catholic Worker co-founder, Peter Maurin, Dorothy wrote, “the truth needs to be restated every twenty years.”  Because I now live in a middle-class suburb, I seem to need to hear this truth within myself every few days (every Monday to be exact) or I will lapse into a world of me, myself, and I.

By and by, giving a voice to the voiceless changes us inside, as spiritual disciplines tend to do. It changes one of the worst of our errant core beliefs (which truly rule our feelings and behaviors even though we deny we believe them): that God is a scolding schoolteacher or angry drill sergeant. As we learn to speak to others with grace and truth, we no longer hear the voice of God in our minds nagging and taunting. Instead, the tone of that voice is gentle and full of reminders of truth. When someone else speaks of God as harsh (without mercy) or as weak (without justice), it feels downright wrong to us.  We have tasted the grace and truth of God and savored it.

Now and then we get to the place that when an angelic person urges us to pursue radical justice and mercy that will make us appear foolish, we say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”


This article originally appeared in Weavings.   A comparison between Mary’s song and Hannah’s song is the topic of study in Spiritual Disciplines Bible Studies: Study & Meditation, Session 4.  {link to that study guide)


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