The act was brutally evil. Drunk and high, Rusty Woomer and a friend went on a terrible rampage. As part of multiple robberies and murders, they raped and killed a convenience store clerk, Della Summers. Her murder landed Rusty on South Carolina’s death row, where he languished, zombie-like, in a filthy, roach-infested cell. A persistent visitor shared the preposterous idea that God could forgive someone like Rusty. Clinging to that good news and the pardon of Jesus, Rusty gradually experienced a transformation of heart and life that no one could quite believe, even his warden and guards.
Still aching from the immeasurable pain and losses he created for others, he wrote tearful apologies to the families of all his victims. As you might expect, no one responded. For years. Then one day, a letter was placed in his hands. He tensed, seeing that it war from Lee Hewitt, brother of Della Summers. He forced himself to rip the envelope and endure the scathing words that would come.
It read, in part, “For years, I hated you with all my heart. I could have blown your brains out for what you did to my sister. I only regretted that you were in prison where I couldn’t get to you. But I’ve spent time in jail myself—56 times over the years. I felt like a failure. But then I became a Christian. And the more I learned about being a Christian,, the more I knew that I had to forgive you….Now the ball was in my court. I’ve prayed about it, and God has done a miracle in my heart. I forgive you. We are brothers in Christ. I love you.” (revelationmessengers.com/rustywoomer)
I know that such a story stirs intense emotions and knotty questions. One question sure to be asked is whether it’s ever right or even healthy to extend that kind of forgiveness. And so I ask you: Should Lee have forgiven Rusty? When should you forgive and when should you not forgive?
I’m not wise nor brave enough to answer that question on my own, but Jesus is. Better still, someone asked him that very question and, best of all, he braved an answer, which means we don’t have to guess what how He MIGHT have answered the question. We know how He did answer the question. Oh, and guess who asked the question? It’s our good, partly wrong friend, Peter.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ (Matthew 18:21)
I love Peter. He poses a question and immediately offers an answer. He just can’t help himself. But it’s a generous answer. Seven times. And seven is the number of perfection, I’m told. I’m guessing he thought Jesus would praise his answer; after all, that had happened before. Peter’s answer sorta went this way. You don’t have to forgive if the person won’t stop hurting you. Forgive those first few offenses. Give them a chance to straighten up. But there’s a limit. Perhaps the limit should be seven? Turns out that Jesus had a different number in mind.
Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (vs. 22)
I would love to have seen Peter’s face at this moment. That’s twisted of me, I know, but I do wonder how it hit him. Peter has framed a math question. Some think Jesus’ answer was addition: 77 times. Some believe his answer was multiplication: 490 (70×7) times. But Jesus wants to be clear that this is not a math question with a math answer. It is a justice question with a fairness answer. So Jesus immediately turns his answer into a story rather than an equation.
Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. (vss. 23-24)
One of the pictures of sin or offense in the Bible is debt. We sometimes use debtor type language when we’ve been wronged or when a crime has been committed. “She’s going to have to pay for what she did to me.” “He has to pay his debt to society.” “She owes me.” Of course, some crimes or violations actually have a fine—a literal monetary debt. And people’s fines and fees can add up. That’s what happens in Jesus’ story.
The man has sinned against the king repeatedly and has incurred substantial fines or fees or tickets. This man’s story is our story. We have sinned against God; We have ignored His warnings and disobeyed His instructions. Every time we’ve wounded someone, we’ve also wounded God. We, like this man, are debtors. Serious debtors. How serious, Roger?
The man’s debt is ten thousand talents. In the language of modern day American currency, we would call this “a boatload of money.” The NIV Bible note simply says, “millions of dollars.” In short, this was an unpayable debt. There was NO WAY this guy was going to “scrounge up that kind of money.” Our debt to God is unpayable. We simply don’t have the means. We’re screwed. Jesus’ listeners know this guy is doomed. He wouldn’t be able to pay.
So let’s try something that may help you to better feel the weight of this story. I’d like you to get out a piece of paper and something to write with. Humor me. Now, write down some of the ways in which you have sinned against God. Remember that every sin against another person is also a sin against God. You are actually creating a kind of ledger or listing of your sins or debts to God. You could also call this your “partly wrong” list.
In order to help you, I’ve created a starter list, something which can perhaps help spur your memory. If you’re reading this along with someone else, don’t read their list or recommend additions to it. You should have plenty enough work to do on your own list.
Possible sins or debts: adultery, gossip, rage, drunkenness, hate, lying, ignoring God, gluttony, coveting, slander, cursing someone, revenge, greed, mocking someone, pride, stinginess, disobeying parents, arrogance, breaking a promise, murder, stealing, cheating, jealousy, judging others, ingratitude, rape, ignoring the poor, divisive arguments, tempting someone to sin, cursing God, abusing someone, threatening language, heartlessness, unforgiveness, prostitution, swindling someone, failure to give, assault, lust, trouble-making, unkindness, keeping track of people’s wrongs, false accusation, drug abuse, ignoring Sabbath, worshiping idols, ridicule, disobeying the law, selfishness, rudeness, loving money, shoplifting, impatience, angry words, enjoying someone’s hurt, failure to admit wrong, bitterness, unwholesome language, rebellious spirit, neglecting your children, ignoring your supervisor, failure to praise God, improper joking, failure to love your spouse, boasting, planning sin, not loving God with all your heart, not loving others like you love yourself, withholding mercy, ETC
For deeper impact, you might even look at certain items on your list and try to guess how “often” you have done those things in your lifetime. Having finished your list (and it’s at least possible you’ve missed a “few” things, you’ve at least some sense of your indebtedness to God, things you must pay for. O.K., let’s get back to Jesus’ story.
Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all he had be sold to repay the debt. The servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ (vss. 25-26)
After checking the man’s accounts and seeing that he could not possibly pay, the King orders that everything he owns be sold to recoup some fraction of his massive debt. The man will lose everything he possesses. Desperate, he begs for mercy, with the foolish promise that he’ll eventually pay back the debt. Ah yes. Desperate people say desperate, unreasonable things. The tension in this story is rising. Now, what will this king do?
The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. (vs. 27)
Several years ago, I was enjoying a party where my birthday was being celebrated. A long-time friend pulled me to the side and said, “My wife and I have decided to cancel the loan we gave you some time back. We want you to have that money.” It was a four-figure debt! I know what it’s like to have a sizable debt canceled. I was stunned and deeply touched. But what if my friend had said, “We want to do even more. We’re going to pay off all your debt—your mortgage, your loans, your credit cards. We want you to be entirely debt-free.” I would’ve been speechless—not a small feat!
This King cancels a debt that this man had no chance of repaying. Can you imagine what he must have felt? Maybe I can help. Take a long look at the ledger sheet you drew up a few minutes ago. Now write “paid in full” in large capital letters across the page. That’s what God offers to do for us if we’ll seek Him for mercy. He forgives a debt we’ve no chance in hell of repaying. The King’s generosity is staggering, perhaps even ridiculous. The man’s able to walk out of the palace entirely debt free, wholly forgiven. But the story isn’t finished.
But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. (vs. 28)
Having just left the palace, the man bumps into a man at the food market and recognizes him immediately. The guy owes him 100 denarii. From what I’ve read, this may be ten dollars. Again to help you feel the weight of the story, I’d like you to get a paper and pen again. I know that you have “writer’s cramp” from the first list, but please humor me and create a second ledger.
I want you to think of one specific person who has wronged you. A name may immediately come to mind, but don’t write the name down. I would, however, like for you to write down how that person has hurt you. This could be called your “partly wronged” list. Now, this may be someone you’ve already forgiven, or it may be someone you struggle to forgive almost every day of your life, or it may be someone you feel you can’t forgive right now. Below, I’ve created a starter list of some possible hurts and losses someone may have inflicted on you.
Someone…lied to you, lied about you, broke a promise, abused you, “ruined” your life, failed to admit wrong, harsh words, conned you of money, abandoned you, killed someone you love, mocked you, injured you, stole your spouse/good friend, took advantage of you, cheated on you, raped you, falsely accused you, attacked you, publicly humiliated you, assaulted you, divorced you, divorced someone you love, ETC.
O.K., let’s go back to the food market outside the palace.
He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened. (vss. 28-31)
Borrowing the title of a classic Reader’s Digest feature: That’s Outrageous! It angers me every time I read it. Well, that was the response of the king as well.
Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you? (vss. 32-33)
So take a look at the two ledgers you have written out: your “partly wrong” list and your “partly wronged” list. If God has fully forgiven your lengthy “partly wrong” list, it’s unreasonable, even outrageous, for you not to forgive that person who has wronged you. It’s true that some of you have been viciously wounded, cheated, or violated—far beyond my ability to comprehend. I’m not lightly dismissing that, but the point of Jesus’ story is that the ledger of offense against you will never be greater than your ledger sheet of offense against God. Never. If your list of “that person’s” offenses against you is longer than your list against God, you’ve forgotten some things…a lot of things.
Forgiving any less than God forgives us is scandalous, really. This is what Lee Hewitt came to realize. No one in the world would blame him for withholding forgiveness, and some would find his mercy to be…well, unforgivable. But he came to see that he was that deeply forgiven man who was refusing to forgive his fellow man.
You might protest that Rusty’s actions were gross evil, and you’re right. But it’s part of our own broken condition that we fail to see how gross our own evil is. When I resolve not to forgive, I’ve grossly underestimated my own sin and need for forgiveness. God’s not minimizing the wrong done to me, but when I choose not to forgive, I’m minimizing my evils which God has forgiven.
So, Jesus, who should I forgive? Every person who wrongs you. Every time.
The partly wrong person fully forgiven by God must extend that same full forgiveness to those who wrong them. It may take days or even years of repeated forgiveness. It may require a choice to forgive every day of your life, but God’s forgiveness compels it. It’s only reasonable. It’s only right. It’s always right.
[Feature photo by geralt at Pixabay.com]
For each weekday of the month of July (and Aug. 1-3), I am blogging a chapter from my book, Partly Wrong, to be published this fall. This blog is chapter fifteen. I welcome any feedback that will help to make it a better chapter.