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A person who wronged me deeply, recently asked for my forgiveness.
This person (I’ll call him Harrison) had done some things that were deeply harmful to me in an earlier chapter of my ministry life. Still today, my wife and I carry wounds from him. To my shock, he reached out to acknowledge them and ask for our forgiveness a few weeks ago.
My wife and I, over a few years of conversations, prayer, and time with counselors and spiritual directors, had undertaken the inner work of forgiving him. If you asked either of us, “Have you forgiven Harrison for the things that happened between you?” our (sincere!) answer would have been, “Of course.”
But the prospect of the person himself actually turning up and asking for my forgiveness, and then me actually granting it to him, was another matter entirely.
Ironically, or providentially, I had that week begun studying to preach the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5. One fascinating dimension of that strange story of healing is its dark ending. In the beginning of 2 Kings 5, Naaman, someone akin to a prime minister for the Arameans (enemies of the Israelites at the time) is seeking healing for his leprosy. He becomes desperate enough that he’s even willing to seek a cure from his enemies the Israelites, and after some further humbling by the prophet Elisha, Naaman is made whole by YHWH as he bathes in the River Jordan.
It’s a story of God’s amazing grace. It’d be a touching story if it ended there — but it doesn’t. In the final act of the narrative arc, Naaman has been healed by the word of the prophet Elisha, but Gehazi, one of Elisha’s assistants, furious that God would heal a pagan enemy warlord like Naaman for free, has been given Naaman’s leprosy.
The story’s sober final turn is reminiscent of other biblical narratives — like the book of Jonah, and Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son(s) in Luke 15. In the tragic-comedy of Jonah, the story ends not with YHWH’s merciful pardon of the murderous Ninevites, or their dramatic repentance in response to Jonah’s pitiful sermon. Instead it ends with Jonah shaking his fist at the heavens, furious that God would have mercy on them. In a deft piece of irony, Jonah repeats one of the most well known descriptions in the Hebrew Scriptures for the character of God, quoting Exodus 34:
“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful,
Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,
And ready to relent from punishing!” (Jonah 4.2)
As a Jew, Jonah and his people’s whole relationship with God is predicated on God’s rescuing grace; his abounding, dogged mercy. God and his people cherished those ancient cadences unfolding YHWH’s benevolent character. But this same mercy is maddening to Jonah when God shows it to the Ninevites: “I always knew you were like this! You’re always doing this!”
Jesus, in his most famous parable, tells a room of buttoned-up religious professionals a story about a father and his two sons to picture for them the prodigal grace of God. The younger wishes his father dead, ruins the family financially, and wastes his life — and his dad’s money — on sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. But his father debases himself to welcome his runaway back in extravagant mercy. It’s a beautiful picture of the patient, costly love of God.
Of course that isn’t where Jesus finishes the story. The punchline of his parable is the figure of the older, squeaky-clean son, raging against his father outside the party thrown for his little brother. At the close of the story, it’s the older brother, the one who kept the rules, who’s outside the house, alienated from the Father. And Jesus finishes the story leaving all to wonder: does the elder brother ever come in? How long does the Father stay out there, pleading with his boy?
It’s telling to me that the Revised Common Lectionary, assigning Scripture selections for the Church’s ears in worship, shaves away the final, haunting end to 2 Kings 5. And that many children’s Bibles conclude the story of Jonah at the end of its third chapter. And that many depictions of Jesus’ prodigal parable feature the embrace of the Father and the younger son, but rarely depict the angry older brother.
The author Philip Yancey once published a book carrying the title, What’s So Amazing About Grace? These ancient, sacred stories could have carried a similar, slightly-altered heading: “What’s So Agonizing About Grace?” They depict for us the agony of grace, the maddening side of divine mercy, the scandal at the heart of the Gospel.
The very being of the God revealed in the Exodus and in the dying and rising of Christ Jesus is sheer, extravagant grace. As the Swiss theologian Karl Barth summarized in his mature reflection on the biblical witness, God is “the One who loves in freedom.”
God loves, rescues, and heals me through Christ in unearned, free grace. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” That costly, free grace sounds sweet to my ears — when it’s for me. And my family. And the people I prefer and care about.
But if God is free to lavish on me his unconditional grace, then God is also free to pardon those I don’t like. God can heal my enemy. God can welcome those I find undeserving, unsavory, distasteful. This is what infuriates Gehazi. This is why Jonah shakes his fist at the heavens and asks to die. This is why the elder brother seethes at the Father’s mercy.
These stories, with one voice, ask me: “If you can have God’s unmerited, free grace, can other undeserving people have it, too? If God can heal you, can he heal someone you think especially diseased? Do you do well to be angry? Shouldn’t I be concerned about Harrison?”
In the moment, I felt sick. But by God’s grace, I did manage to say to Harrison, “You need to know that I forgive you for the things you did, and don’t hold them against you, and that you’re my brother. I don’t want you to go through life with guilt or shame hanging around your neck. Thank you for apologizing to me.” And it was like having an old scar or scab torn back from my soul.
Amazing grace. How agonizing. And how sweet.