The Parable of the Merciful Judge

Another reprint from Mormon Matters. I came up with the following parable to explain to a Born Again Christian friend why I felt his belief that our actions plays no role in salvation at all was setting up a false dichotomy between influence and merit. It floated like a lead balloon, of course. He didn’t even bother to comment back to me. I later reused it with a carpool of Mormons that all seemed to enjoy it quite a bit more. In case you are wondering, yes, it’s a true story too. (Note: because I’m getting questions about this, I’ll add this – this is not a parable about the atonement nor is the judge here meant to represent Christ. This parable, as with all parables, is limited in scope with the point it makes.)

Once there was a young teenaged boy that was inexperienced at driving and made the mistake of driving home at night without his headlights on. He had turned on his parking lights but had failed to pull the switch just a bit further for the headlights. The roads were well lit, so it was not obvious to such an inexperienced driver that something was wrong.

When a cop pulled him over, he was shocked to find that he had driven the whole way without his lights on. When he was required to go before a judge he immediately admitted his guilt and expressed gladness he had not hurt anyone.

The judge, sensing that this teen would not benefit from having to pay the ticket nor the additional insurance costs, threw the ticket out. The judge added “I’ve made the same mistake before myself. Just be careful in the future.”

Did the teen deserve the ticket? Of course he did. He was guilty. Would it be justice to have made the teen pay the ticket? Yes, of course.

Was this judge a “bad” judge? I think most of us would agree that he was not a bad judge, nor was he shirking his duties to society.

Did the repentant teen “deserve” the mercy the judge showed him? Of course not. Mercy is never deserved by very definition. This teen was pronounced “not guilty” by a judge due to no merit on his part.

Now pretend, just for a moment, that the same story had taken place, but instead the teen had shouted at the judge “I meant to drive with my headlights off and I’m going to do it again first chance I get!”

Suppose the judge was still in a merciful mood and still decided to throw the ticket out while still adding, “I’ve made the same mistake before myself. Just be careful in the future.”

Do you still believe this judge is a good judge?

What is the difference? In both cases we have the same judge performing the same act of mercy. Isn’t mercy a “good thing?”

It seems to me that we innately understand that for mercy to be “good,” it must only be extended to a person that has repented. The teen was not a threat to society so he could be shown mercy without harming either him or society. On the other hand, our non-repentant teen could be shown no mercy without harming both himself and society.

This example proves that what we do, specifically repentance, can indeed influence the outcome of a judgment. But that “influence” should not be mistaken for “merit.”

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