This year, our Wednesday Lenten Study will explore the book Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson is the director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization in Montgomery, Alabama which aims to provide legal representation to those who are most vulnerable. The book paints a vast and vivid mural showing what’s wrong in our nation’s criminal justice system.
There’s no doubt that Stevenson has constructed this book in order to make a case for reform, but what I find so amazing is his approach. Just Mercy is not an academic textbook. It is not a raging polemic. Just Mercy is a collection of ordinary people’s stories. Stevenson writes with such warmth and empathy, you feel like you’re sitting across from him in a coffee shop, and he’s leaning in saying, “Let me tell you about somebody I met…” Indeed, Stevenson’s own story ribbons through the chapters illuminating that each one of us has a story too.
We may not have had all the same experiences as the people in this book, but we can begin to hear our own stories alongside theirs. You might feel like what happened to them could just as easily have happened to you. We might be outraged by who is made to suffer from our system (if you’re thinking it’s the children, you’re right). We might recognize Jesus’s story in these stories of our sisters and brothers.
Lent is the season for reflecting on the events leading up to Jesus’s death on the cross. We sing hymns which insist that Jesus’s death brings about our salvation. If you’ve ever wondered exactly how that works, me too. As it turns out, the answer comes in stories. It’s less a math problem, as in my sin plus the blood of Jesus equals reconciliation with God. Less that. Much more a story, and more accurately, a handful of stories tracing a path from the sin of the world to the hope of new life in Christ.
Something to know about Jesus: He is not just the crimes he’s accused of —whether that’s blasphemy, or treason, or rabble-rousing. We know his story is more than the charges brought against him; it’s even more than his execution. I mean, we knew Jesus back when he was a baby surrounded by animals and angels. Jesus’s story is more than the scripture we’ll hear on Good Friday. As Stevenson demonstrates, everybody’s story is more than their sentencing hearing.
Everyone who gets treated like a criminal has a backstory. Every victim of crime, every corrections officer, every prosecutor, every one of us— has a backstory. We’re all shaped by the parts of our story we have already survived. The more of our story we can honor and hold, the more we can hear the truth in what Stevenson claims:
You are not the worst thing you have ever done. You are not the worst thing you have endured. Your story is more. Your life is more…
Today we hear the parable of the Unforgiving Slave. Right before the story, Jesus prefaced it by saying “The kingdom of heaven is like this…” Right before that, Jesus told Peter that the work of forgiveness is not giving someone a second chance It’s not giving a seventh chance. The work of forgiveness is giving someone so many chances you lose count. Yeah… I’m pretty sure Peter is not at all convinced.
So Jesus tries again. The kingdom of heaven: Once there was a king who went to settle accounts with his slaves. He noticed that one slave owed him ten thousand talents. To translate, imagine one year’s salary, multiply that by fifteen, that’s a talent. Now multiply that by ten thousand. Right. This was the debt of one slave! It’s no wonder the slave is thinking he will be sold, and his wife and his children will be sold. The slave fell on his knees pleading for the king (his lord) to grant him mercy. Don’t worry, Jesus tells them, the kinglord is moved by pity; he forgives the slave’s debt.
If this story ended right here, I could make you a beautiful sermon. Terrifying crushing debt, no way out, no way to make a payment plan! Then by the mercy of the kinglord —who maybe represents God— the debt gets canceled. Our sin gets wiped away. We will not be sold into slavery after all. Feel your whole body sigh in relief.
Except there’s this…
The first thing is, I can’t see how this is anything like the kingdom of heaven. Since when is there slavery in the kingdom of heaven? How is it God’s dream to solve debt by selling the debtor along with her whole family? Now I don’t know everything there is to know about the kingdom of heaven, but I know it’s not a single act of mercy inside a system of cruelty.
You ever want to know whether you have found the kingdom of heaven, let me recommend two questions. One: Is God more than you imagined them being? Two: How are the children being treated? Look for God; look for children. This story fails on both counts.
It is also the case that the story isn’t over. At the risk of sounding like Lemony Snicket: Look away. The plot takes a turn and things only get worse. Much worse.
What happens next is the newly-forgiven slave found one of his slaves who owed him a hundred denarii. To translate, imagine about six thousand dollars. But the newly-forgiven slave showed him no mercy; he had this man thrown into prison. Well, when the other slaves found out, they turned in the first slave to the kinglord.
As you can imagine, the kinglord is outraged! Here he took a chance on this slave who promptly betrayed his compassion. You can understand how the kinglord was not going to get burned again! Fool me once shame on you, but fool me twice, shame on me. So the kinglord ordered that the slave be tortured forever. You know, just like my heavenly father will do to each and every one of you if you do not forgive from your heart, Jesus adds brightly. Expect to be tortured forever!
Some interpreters suggest that Jesus issued this offensive, outrageous teaching in order to provoke us to fix the ending, to realize: Oh. This is not the kingdom of heaven. This is not even the story I want to live in this world.
You can tell this parable does not portray the kingdom of heaven because it misses the mark on both questions. One: Is God bigger than we thought? Not if God is represented by this kinglord! Two: What about the kids? The only children mentioned almost get sold into slavery. When they are spared that fate, they are forced to see their father taken away and tortured forever.
There is no doubt. This story is not the kingdom of heaven. You and I can tell, this story depicts our world. The kinglord isn’t God. He is each one of us.
Who among us has not made the choice to give somebody a second chance only to have them abuse our kindheartedness? That moment the kinglord finds out what the slave did and whirls into a rage, we get it. This might have happened to you! It’s a problem to grant a person a second chance only to have them ruin it. Maybe this is why Jesus is so insistent that the work of forgiveness is not handing out second chances or seven chances. It’s giving so many chances you lose count.
Maybe it’s like this. You know every story is made of a beginning, and a middle, and an end. What if forgiveness is the work of enlarging the scope of the story? It’s seeing that everybody has a backstory. For example, what went on in this slave’s life that allowed him to incur so much debt? He was in the business of making loans to other slaves and collecting on their debts, did he really get in over his head, or was this all part of a con? And what about this kinglord? Does he routinely give second chances, or was this his first attempt at mercy?
Every person is more than a player in a scenario or a defendant in a case. Taking up the work of forgiveness means searching out the stories that have brought us to this moment. If the first strategy of forgiveness is realizing that everybody’s story has a prequel, the second strategy is seeing that every story has a sequel. Don’t believe the beginning; every beginning has a beginning before. And please whatever you do, don’t trust the ending to be the end.
More than anything else, the work of forgiveness is the work of changing the ending. You know, if someone hurts you, your story gets assigned to a standard trajectory that goes: You’ll need to get revenge or restitution in order to be made whole; otherwise, you’ll have to carry the weight of this pain for the rest of your life. Expect to be tortured forever!
Instead. If you choose to begin forgiving, you’re deciding, the standard trajectory is not in charge of your life. You’re making a decision about your own destiny. You have heard it said, “Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.” That’s right. This is what makes it possible to turn our hope toward the future.
Now okay. It’s fine for me to stand here and say that forgiveness makes a new way forward, but what does that even look like? How do we begin to imagine… All I can tell you is that it might help to start here: Whatever you believe about God, what if God is even greater than that? And by the way, how are the children…
We are not the worst thing we have ever done; nobody is. We are not the worst thing we have survived. We are called into being by the love of God, for the love of God.
And we know the good news. There is more to the story. Always more.