April 25, 1995
Consider this moral and judicial dilemma. A woman has two rare diseases, one of which requires intravenous feeding. Government health care funds have paid for treatment, a legitimate claim. However, there is a complication; she and her husband have been accused of defrauding the government out of welfare payments.
Some say a thief is a thief—justice demands punishment. Others say the woman could die if she is not shown mercy, let her alone. If she is found guilty as charged, how can her crime be reconciled with her helplessness?
Should those who believe that we must uphold the letter of the law stop and consider the condition of the lawbreakers heart? Was this person desperately in need? Was she motivated by fear of dying? Did she attempt any legitimate means of getting enough money? Is she sorry for any wrong she may have done? There are no excuses for breaking the law but penalties can vary, depending on the guilty person’s attitude.
Those who make decisions based on pity also should consider what is going on in the perpetrator’s heart. Is she a deceitful crook? Is she selfishly taken up with her own needs without any concern for others who might suffer because of her actions? Did she ignore all legitimate methods and simply hope she did not get caught? Is she defiant toward those she may have deceived? Showing mercy is commendable but is it always right to do so?
If I had to pass judgment on this situation, I would pray for the wisdom of Solomon. He was a king of ancient Israel and once approached by two women arguing over a baby. One rolled over during the night and suffocated her child so she took the other’s baby and claimed it as her own. Only the women knew which was which and both of them accused the other of negligence and kidnaping.
Solomon was not baffled. He asked for a sword and ordered the child be split in two, half given to each woman. One said that was a good idea. The other said “No! Give the baby to her,” pointing to the other woman. Solomon knew a mother’s heart. He gave the baby to the one who would rather give up her child than see it killed.
Because we cannot always evaluate someone’s motives, sorting it out the claims made by those involved in a dispute is difficult. When my children had their three-way spats, I usually asked what was going on or how it started. Sometimes they offered three convincing but different stories while each claimed innocence.
Unlike me, or even Solomon, God knows what makes everyone tick. No “story” can fool Him. Also, He knows how guilty people will respond if they receive harsh condemnation or if they are given leniency and mercy. He knows when chastening will result in a changed life and when mercy will have the most impact.
Anyone evaluating cases like that of the sick woman in the first story will ask many questions. Whose prerogative is it to pardon or charge a seriously ill person for abusing the system? If she is not charged and goes unpunished, how many people will try it next? If she is charged, how can she pay any penalty if she is so ill she cannot move?
When one doubts whether to pass judgment or show mercy, someone once said it is better to err on the side of mercy. Guilty or innocent, God is the ultimate judge. Anyone who is unjustly punished in this life will be vindicated and those who escape justice will eventually answer for their crimes.