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From Vengeance to Forgiveness

Luke 15:1-10

Understanding the violent actions of this past week is difficult. It should be. It should never be easy to comprehend the emotions, the values, and the perspectives that produce the brutal murder of thousands and the catastrophic destruction of property. We should never be able to fully grasp the anger and hatred that compel a person to fly a Boeing 757 into an office building. 

Stunned silence is an appropriate response to tragedy. When Job heard the news that his livestock were slaughtered and his servants butchered, he was silenced by the news. We sat in stunned silence as buildings burn and then collapse. We could not fully grasp the horror of the events. We knew that our lives would never be the same again and we were speechless.

After initial shock wore away, we mourned for the people who died and their families. Those all too familiar words from the Sermon of the Mount, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted"(Matthew 5:4) took on new meaning. We felt helpless. We wanted to do something but we were powerless. Somehow, we had to act; somehow, we had to respond. So, we grieved and we prayed. We must continue to pray for the families who have lost loved ones. We must pray for those who narrowly escaped. We must pray for those who are picking through the rubble looking for the dead and hoping against hope to find one still living. Healing their wounds will take longer than rebuilding the World Trade Center itself. But after we say our Amens, after we blow out the candles, after we lift our heads the pain remains. 

Now anger and rage set in. We want justice. We want to punish those who have inflicted so much suffering. We demand vengeance. A CNN poll asks, "Should U.S. law be changed to allow the assassination of hostile foreign leaders?" Every news agency has a special section with links to various stories about the tragedy. On one page a sub header lists these words, DAY OF RECOVERY, VICTIMS, MISSING, INVESTIGATION, RETALIATION. Clicking, RETALIATION brings up a web page with additional links to articles explaining what the President, Congress, the FBI, and other countries throughout the world are doing to bring the criminals to justice. President Bush has declared, "we will prevail" against the perpetrators of this massacre.1 And this morning I read that Afghanistan has three days to turn over Osama bin Laden.

Anger and rage toward such a tragedy are healthy responses but if allowed they can produce a vengeful spirit that will drive a person and a nation into irresolvable bitterness. Poisoned by hatred Northern Ireland, the Balkans, and Palestine suffer through generational conflicts. Children continue to die on the streets of those countries because adults are driven by vengeance. They cannot bring themselves to forgive and work toward reconciliation. They have become locked into a perpetual and bloody feud.

The book of Psalms cautions anyone driven by vengeance to beware. "He who digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit he has made." (Psalm 7:15) In our passion to bring those responsible to justice, we must be careful not to bring additional suffering upon ourselves. However, even while we cautiously work toward justice and perhaps even before the final penalty is pronounced on the guilty, we will should also take steps toward healing the wounds that lead to anger and bitterness.

Healing though, will not come until forgiveness is offered. Some have said that such an act of compassion will be impossible. They contend that we were able to forgive the Japanese because their attack on Pearl Harbor pitted their military against our military. The hijacking of American Airlines flight #11 and #77 and United Airlines flights #175 and #93 used one of our own commercial airlines as weapons to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and murder non-military citizens. Robert Enright, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin states, "This incident has a real patina of evil about it."2 Forgiveness will not come easily.

Forgiveness was no less difficult when Jesus walked throughout the countryside teaching and healing. He encountered racial bigotry between Jews and Samaritans and vindictive hatred the tax collectors by the Pharisees. According to William Barclay we will understand the deep seated animosity between these groups if we remember that the good Jew did not say, "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents," but, "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God." The good Jew looked sadistically forward to the destruction of sinners rather than to their salvation.3

Jesus challenged this deep-seated hostility with a parable about a shepherd's tireless search for one lost sheep and his joy when the animal is found. Shepherds seldom owned their own flocks. They either took care of the flocks for the wealthy or for the village in which they lived. They were personally accountable for each animal. If another animal killed a sheep, the shepherd was required to bring home the fleece to show how it had died. Often they would travel many miles to search for one animal that had strayed. 

By this parable, Jesus gives us a glimpse into the nature of God. He is driven to search for that one stray. He is willing to risk his life for that one who wondered off. The religious right would write off the tax collectors and sinners. They deserved the wrath of God. They were lawbreakers. They do not merit forgiveness but God searches until they are found. We want to punish terrorist. We want to see them suffer for their crimes but God is still hoping to find his lost sheep.

To reinforce and extend the message Luke retells another parable about a woman who loses a coin. There are at least two reasons why the woman would frantically search her house for a coin. First, it may have been out of sheer necessity. The coin would have been worth a day's wage. Those who were listening to the parable would have pictured a poor woman who was living on the edge of poverty. If she failed to find the coin, her family would not eat. 

Another more romantic reason for her search may be found if the coin was one of ten silver coins that she wore in a head-dress. In Middle Eastern culture, a young girl would save for years to amass ten coins for a head-dress that she would wear when she was married. It was the equivalent of a wedding ring. If she lost one of these coins, the woman would search for it with the same intensity that a woman today would search for a wedding ring.

Whatever the reason, the woman would have cause for celebration once the coin is found. Her joy represented the joy God feels when a sinner repents and comes home. With these parable, Jesus challenged the Pharisees to see every person, whether she obeyed the law or not, whether he was a Gentile or Jew as precious in God's eye. Neither the sheep nor the coin repented before God went in search of them. Neither admitted their wrong doing before God risked everything to bring them home.

Are you willing to see whoever is responsible for the terrorist attacks of this past week as lost coins for whom God will stop at nothing to find?

Forgiveness does not require dusting the memories under the rug. Forgiveness does not deny the evil nature of those acts nor does it shield the criminal from justice. Forgiveness acknowledges the wrong. It requires us to reach out to those responsible and take one step beyond; to respond to the evil in a new way.

Jurgen Moltmann, a famous German theologian, fought in the German army during World War II. After his capture by the British, he was imprisoned in Scotland. While a POW, God found him through two incidents. The first happened while he was reading the scriptures. The chaplain of the camp had given Bibles to the prisoners. Moltmann was disappointed that the gifts were not cigarettes, but decided to read the book anyway. One day he read in the psalms, "Hear my prayer O Lord, and give ear to my cry. Hold not thy peace at my tears, for I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as my fathers before me."(Psalm 39:12) Moultmann was dumfounded. It was as if he had been hit by a bolt of lighting. 

Then he turned to the New Testament and read of the passion of our Lord, "My God, why hast thou forsaken me." Moultman would write, "I knew with certainty this is someone who understands me. I began to understand Christ because I realized Christ understood me. And I began to summon up the courage to go on living." 

The second incident came later during a visit by a group of Christians to the prison camp. They were from Holland. At first Moltmann was afraid to meet with them because he had fought in Holland. The Dutch students told him that they wanted to visit because Christ sent them. Then they told stories about their terror. The Gestapo had destroyed their homes and had taken away their Jewish friends. Through their sharing a bridge was built between two enemies. Those Dutch students offered to the German prisoners forgiveness and the grace of Jesus Christ even before the soldiers repented and ask for it. That act of mercy transformed Moultmann and gave him new life.4

We prefer to personalize and sentimentalize the message of the New Testament. We would prefer to see ourselves as the lost sheep for whom God searches every valley, every creek bed, and every ravine. We would prefer to see ourselves as the lost coin for whom God rejoices over when found. We would prefer to think that he is telling the parable about us not to us. We would prefer to assume that he offers us the parable to reassure us of his love, not to challenge our thirst for vengeance. The parable does both. For those of us who were once lost, we are assured of his love. But once we are found, we must be willing to accept the sheep for whom God is still searching. We must be willing to forgive the lost coins that he finds. 

The images of a woman searching her house for one coin and a shepherd scouring the countryside for a lost lamb make for picturesque stories. But we will never know the joy of the shepherd or the happiness of the woman unless we are willing to step beyond the rhetoric of vengeance and retribution and display a spirit of grace and forgiveness.

1 President George W. Bush, "Bush: We will smoke them out,", September 15, 2001, Online:

2 "Can terrorism be forgiven?" Julia Duin, The Washington Post, September 13, 2001, Online:, citing Robert Enright.

3 The Gospel of Luke, ed. William Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, electronic ed., Logos Library System;The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975).

4 Mark Trotter, "God Never Gives Up," Online:

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