It wasn’t that the father of the prodigal was too harsh: he was too kind. The elder brother’s sibling had ruined the family’s reputation, spent his wad in wild living, and he thinks that he can just come home. He can! He has a father who would rather forgive than get even. When mercy triumphs over judgment, it offends those tripping on vengeance and not reaching love.
Jonah knew it too well. He had been singing about it since he was a kid: “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for his mercy endures forever.” That is why he went the opposite direction. He could not tolerate the brutal warriors of Nineveh being let off the hook. He wanted those pagans slaughtered, not saved. He was offended by God’s kindness: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…” (Jonah 4:2).
Can you think of anyone you’d rather see in hell than in heaven? When we get there, we will be surprised at the people who made it—and those who didn’t. When an American chaplain reached out to Nazi war criminals on their way to the gallows, some decided to accept a radical message of grace. We will meet them in heaven. Others chose to say, “Heil Hitler” at their final breath rather than “Jesus is Lord,” and their judgment is sadly sure. Hell will not make anyone happy to be there.
When vengeance rises up within me for those who clearly do not deserve grace, I must remind myself that no one does: “There is none righteous, no not one.” It is only a matter of degrees. I have earned the same destiny as the Hitler worshipers. I dare not wish hell for anyone. It would reflect an unconverted heart, like the elder brother, who chose law over grace, merit over mercy.
When people misunderstand us, reject us, take advantage of us, malign us, attempt to make our life miserable, something within cries for justice. Silence those yearnings, or you will find yourself imprisoned by unholy vindication.
Jesus told a story to bring this truth home. A man who had been forgiven a massive debt, impossible to pay back, demanded payment of a fellow servant who owed him one twenty-thousandth of one per cent of the amount he had been released from. His master said, “’I forgave you all that debt because you asked me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers [in Greek “torturers”] till he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart’” (34,35).
Jesus is urging us to forgive all who hurt us in any way rather than let judgment rise over mercy—and make our lives miserable. Dear wounded brother or sister, forgive your parents, boss, pastor, sibling, relative, spouse, enemy, so your lack of forgiving does not ruin your life. If you do forgive, you are on your way to living an unoffendable life. A friend once said to me, “Paul, just so you know; it is almost impossible to offend me.” That’s how I want to live. Don’t you? No one is more free!