By: JUBILEE! Minister Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge
In 1993, Mary Johnson’s 20-year-old son was shot and killed at a party in Minneapolis, Minn. He got into a fight with a drug dealer and gang member Oshea Israel, who went to prison for the crime. One of Israel’s visitors while he was in prison was Mary Johnson.
Johnson told Israel that when she visited she “wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of that I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you.” But, she told him, he was not that 16-year-old that killed her son. Instead, she said, “you were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”
In that sharing, Israel said, her son became human to him, and before Johnson left the prison, she hugged Israel. In that instant, she said, she forgave Israel for taking her son. Now, Israel lives right next door to Johnson, and has become like a son to her. She tells him she wants to see him graduate college and get married, since she can’t see her own son do that.
Her faith in him, Israel says, makes him want to reach those goals as well.
This is the heart of our Jesus story (Luke 16:1-13), which features one of the most convoluted parables – that of the unjust manager. This manager had been charged with mismanaging a rich man’s money and is fired – but now he’s in a quandary. He’s acted as this rich guy’s manager, so he hasn’t won many friends among the workers. Now that he’s on their level, he has to come up with a way to get on good terms with them, or face their wrath. So, one by one, he asks them what they owe and then reduces their debt.
Now, they’re thinking this manager is a great and magnanimous guy – but when the master gets wind of his fired manager doing something he’s not authorized to do – it’s his turn to make a decision. Will he now go back to these workers and make them pay the remaining debt, or will he honor his fired manager’s new deals?
At the heart of this story is forgiveness. The manager actually forgave the debts of the rich man’s debtors – something he had no right to do. The question was, would the master back him up and also be forgiving?
This mother, really, did not have the right to forgive her son’s killer. Only her son had the power do that – but since, like the rich landowner, he’s not here to act on his own behalf, his mother feels that she’s doing the right thing by taking this duty upon herself. She has a choice – she can continue to want to hurt the man who took her son away – or she can forgive. Either way, the outcome is the same – she remains without her son.
But, Mary Johnson believes that she has the blessing of her son to extend this kind of selflessness and forgiveness to a man she sees as someone who made a mistake while caught up in a life of drugs and gangs. She has seen her forgiveness help to transform this man’s life.
We don’t know how to react to this kind of forgiveness, because we can hardly fathom doing it if we were in Mary Johnson’s shoes. Israel can hardly believe it either.
“Sometimes I still don’t know how to take it,” he says, “because I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet.”
No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells his audience. We can’t serve the master of revenge while we seek to do a jig of justice.