Before the Bar
I’ve shared the story of Cindy’s family coming face to face with the state trooper who killed her father in a car accident. They were in their lawyer’s office before going to court for his sentencing. He’d pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide. The state trooper had served 10 years in the military before going into law enforcement. Since the accident he’d been dismissed from his job and become a real estate agent. He hadn’t served a day in jail…yet. The judge was inclined to sentence him to a seven-year prison term–suspended, and two years on probation. The trooper would not go to prison at all. The lawyer asked the family how they felt about the sentence. Silence. How would you feel? The man who took your husband’s, your father’s, life was going to go on with his life. The family decided to extend forgiveness and ask for leniency.
I asked Cindy how she felt at that moment. She said she was conflicted, but chose forgiveness and leniency. Her reasoning was simple. “What is forgiveness if it doesn’t free the guilty from their crime and extend leniency? What if we were standing in his place & our lives were under examination, could any of us stand that kind of scrutiny if our lives were closely examined? Should a whole life be judged on a moment’s bad decision?”
They entered the court and saw him for the first time. Their lawyer asked if they wanted to meet him. Some did, some didn’t, but eventually they all went over to him. The courtroom was full of prisoners in shackles and families watching from the gallery. He was standing stiffly before the judge looking apprehensive. He didn’t know what to expect. His wife standing nearby, wondering what would happen to her husband and family. Cindy’s mom,
Ruth, initially didn’t want to meet him, but on impulse she went over to him, reached out and hugged him. She leaned up & whispered in his hear, “I’ve been praying for you every day. Family is so important. Make your life count.” The trooper held her in his arms and began to cry. The judge went on to speak about what was happening. For the next 15 minutes he talked about the number of cases he sees almost every day (30) and how extraordinary these proceedings were. He and Ruth are members of the same church but had never known each other before. “This,” he said, “is what the Christian faith is all about.”
Between Cindy and the judge truer words were never spoken. The moment our own guilt becomes real, genuine forgiveness is possible—both for us and for each other—but not until then. It’s the difference between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus. The Pharisees believed in their own righteousness, they were sure of their moral and religious superiority. Yet, according to Jesus, they were actually “sons of hell” (Mt 23: 15). It was the sinners and the tax collectors who knew their true state, who knew their own guilt and felt it keenly, and who also believed in the forgiveness and the goodness of God who were drawn to Jesus and kingdom bound. It is these Jesus pronounced “justified” (Lk 18:14). It is a paradox: those who feel most miserable about themselves are the very one’s open to being put right, and those who are most satisfied with themselves are the ones who have closed the door to forgiveness. Forgiveness is the way out of our misery and the way on to genuine living.
That day in court everyone in Cindy’s family felt released. They live today with no anger and no resentment. What happened will not haunt or harm them. Forgiveness is the key that opens the door and loosens the shackles that bind us…and others.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Rev. Don Muncie