Icy rain drizzled over balding shingles into tarnished gutters and swirled through downspouts to the crab-grass lawns of the worn-out, working-class neighborhood. Beneath the low swag of the thick, black electric and phone cables, huddled around a sunken front porch of a 1930s home, mourners peered through bleery eyes as Sarah emerged from her dark parlour, bolstered by her two teen-age sons.
“Thank you,” she said. Her face dropped to the rough wood, cloaked with countless layers of light gray paint. Paint that Charles, her husband of 21 years had slathered on in his faithful upkeep of their tired home. “Thank you all for coming.” Raising her chin, defying the despair that would drown her heart and mind in a cistern of bitter tears. “You all knew Charles. We AAAlll knew Charles.”
Firey passion ignited her eyes and strengthened her voice. And while her chin trembled with the palsy of loss, pain and sorrow, she burned with righteous anger and determination.
“Charles was better than his end! He didn't deserve what this son of perdition brought to him that night. His kindness was repayed in hate and his charity with wickedness.”
Amens shot forth from amid the black umbrellas.
“And while we may forgive this misguided son for his evil deed, he HAS EARNED a punishment. He HAS EARNED what's comin' to him.”
Shouts of approval rang through the throng.
Sarah stepped back as Reverend Frank moved forward from his place on the porch. After a moment of bowed silence, he said, “I knew the boy who pulled the trigger. I know his family. And while we may understand how people can be living in anger and pain, we know that we can't allow such things to go on. Without justice, there's no peace. Without payment, there's no freedom. And, like sister Sarah just said, we will work to forgive that young man, we will do our civil duty to see that he pay for the cost of his wretched deeds.”
More amens rose up.
At Reverend Frank's lead, the gathering lifted their somber voices in several hymns of hope. They sang well-worn lyrics penned during times when meditation on God's truth reigned as a stolid virtue.
With prayer, the faithful departed and the family retired to their emptier, more silent home.
As weeks progressed, Sarah met with the prosecutor. She gave statements and interviews. She met with police to discuss when she'd have the mortician take the body so she could arrange the funeral.
One afternoon, as she stood in a daze in the checkout line at the supermarket, she spotted the boy's mother several lines down from her. Rising like a flame doused in gasoline, she felt her anger burn against that woman, her family and all she held dear.
She left her groceries there at the store and fled to her church. Tearfully, she poured out her bitter feelings to Reverend Frank.
“It's perfectly normal to feel anger, Sarah. It grows out of our natural understanding of justice. When someone does something against us, they create a debt. They owe us something. Sometimes it's as simple as an apology that they owe us. In this case it's a debt that boy can never pay. Nothing he ever does will ever bring Charles back.”
Sarah whiped her tears on a tissue and then the corner of her sleeve. “But... if the kid just said he was sorry for what he did. Admit he made a mistake!”
Reverend Frank put his arm around her. “People seldom will say they're sorry, Sarah. Even in little things, we tend to underestimate how much we truly offended people. That boy is so messed up he doesn't see clearly. He can't see the depth of his own wrong. He only sees the wrong he feels the world has done to him. And because of that, he feels he's not to blame.”
More weeks passed and a judge announcemnet came. The prosecutor took the news somberly and delivered it to Sarah slowly.
“This judge is … well, he's very compassionate.”
“That's good, right?” Sarah said.
The prosecutor shook his head with a long face. “Let me put it this way … He sees victims and tries to understand why they did what they did.”
Enraged, Sarah shot to her feet and glared down at the prosecutor. “That's NOT his job! His JOB is to see if someone broke the law, which this kid DID, and pass down judgment for the crime!”
Nodding, the prosecutor said, “That's right. But he feels compassion is lost, then.”
“And HIS way, justice is lost!”
Sarah had spent so many afternoons taking Reverend Frank's time, she felt guilty for stopping at the parsonage again that day. But she needed him to talk her through this issue about the judge.
Nodding after hearing the news, Reverend Frank said, “I've heard a lot about this judge. I've read many a op ed about him, too. He's very popular among some, and less popular among others.”
“Can I ask to have another judge?”
“Well, that's a question for the prosecutor. But I don't think that sort of thing happens without some really good reasoning, like a conflict of interest, or something.”
“I'd say siding with the guilty is a pretty good conflict of interest!”
Reverend Frank chuckled. “What I can offer is spiritual advice, Sarah. And this is important. Regardless of what this judge does, there is a judgment that this young man will not escape.”
“The final judgment. I know.”
“You don't seem to take that very serously.”
“I think he should have to pay here and now.”
Reverend Frank nodded again and let out an understanding sigh. “Believe me, the judgment of God will be unlike anything we could deal out here. And, if he realized what was going to happen, he'd gladly take the punishment here in exchange for a 'not guilty' from God.
“But I think you are looking at an interesting thing here.”
“How is this interesting?”
“Well, many people live however they want, and count on God to be loving. To forgive whatever they've done. But that's not how it works. Remember how we talked about the debt that someone owes when they do something wrong to us?”
Sarah nodded, whiping tears.
“Well, because we sin every day with out thoughts, our actions and our words, we are in constant rebellion against what God wants us to live like. His command is to love Him with all our hearts, souls and minds and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But every time we think of ourselves over God, we dethrone Him in our hearts. Every time we neglect a need of a neighbor or think a harsh word against someone in traffic, we violate our Maker's manual for ourlives. We incur a debt that we owe against Him. The mounts and compounds and is unpayable by us. And we deserve God's wrath.”
“I thought God was love?”
“That's right. God is love. He loved us so much He came to live among us as a man, but without sinning. As hard as it is to keep from cursing when we get cut off from traffic or feeling hurt and getting bitter, Jesus experienced all that, but never sinned. And then he took the punishment for us, the eternal wrath of God on himself so that we wouldn't have to.”
“So we get off without paying.”
“That's right, because Jesus paid in our place. There had to be a payment. Justice had to be met, or God would not be a Just God.”
“So, this kid, if he gets off here ...”
“It would be the same as if someone never repented of their sins and accepted Jesus'sacrifice, but expected to be forgiven their debt without payment.”
“So, how does that help me, pastor?”
“You are struggling to forgive this boy.”
“Well … YEAH! Why should I? Especially if the judge lets him off light?”
“Jesus paid for the full weight of your sin on the cross. I remember you repenting and asking for that forgiveness on Jesus' account. So much was fogiven you all because of the work of God. He paid your debt. What this boy did is horrible. He can't pay it back any more than you could pay your debt to God. You need to forgive him for simple reason that God has forgiven you more than you could ever pay.”
“I do, but the feelings keep coming back.”
“When God forgives, the Bible says He puts the offense as far as the East is from the West, or in the depths of the ocean. We're not perfect, Sarah. We keep finding those offenses and picking them up again. We have to keep on going back and forgiving people. Now go tell God, your father about your feelings. He'll help you through. And pray for that boy's soul. Because he won't be getting off light if he doesn't find true repentance with God.”