Reflections on Matthew 18:26
The poor wretch threw himself at the king's feet and begged, “Give me a chance and I'll pay it all back.”
Matthew 18:26 (MSG)
It happens a lot.
The moment judgment is pronounced, the guilty almost always cry for mercy. They beg the court for leniency as if, in a last ditch effort, they’ll be heard. Their voice usually gets louder as they’re taken away – desperately louder. The doors open, the doors close, and their muffled voice trails off until, at last, it’s gone.
But this one is different.
This one falls humbly at the King’s feet and somehow wins his attention. Is it because he refuses to lift his head and look into the King’s face? Or is it because he doesn’t do what a lot of them do. He doesn’t cry foul saying he didn’t do what people say he did, or didn’t mean to, or doesn’t deserve to be sentenced like that.
His voice is barely audible. Even from a distance, it looks like he knows his guilt. His posture, his head buried in his hands, speaks of a broken, guilty man.
At once, the King’s police descend on him but they stop the moment the King stretches his hand out and makes them step back. There’s an audible gasp in the chamber. Silence fills the room except for one small voice heard by those closest.
“Give me a chance.”
It doesn’t seem possible that the King would listen to the poor wretch. After all, he’s nothing more than a slave now and slaves in his kingdom have no voice. They are nothing more than personal property – animals to be branded, used, and abused – expelled from the rank and dignity of even being called human.
“I will pay it all back – everything.”
One flick of the King’s hand and the police would descend immediately on the man who refuses to hold up his head. One flick and it’s over. But instead, he has the beginning of a smile on his face and a kindness about him. Is it because the man actually thinks it’s possible to negotiate the absolutely impossible?
He can pay back everything? Really?
The King just stands there. Every eye is fixed on him wondering why he hasn’t banished the wretch already. They expect it. Especially this man for what he’s done. But still the King doesn’t move. Is he actually considering it?
The sound comes once again, slowly, quietly.
“Give me a chance…”
* * *
“This is beautiful,” I said to Ricky, handing the papers back to him. “I mean, really well done. It’s like you’re giving your daughters your heart.” A waitress came by, poured more coffee, and landed the check on the table.
“Thanks, but it needs work.”
“Not much from what I can tell.” I watched as he put cream and sugar in his coffee and stirred it. “Have you finished writing it?”
“Not yet, I haven’t written the part about my father. They’ve got to know the whole story. The men in my family have messed up for generations – me included – and I gotta break the cycle. It ends with me. I don’t want it touching my grandsons. If my daughters can see it, they can do something about it.”
“Tell me about your dad.”
“Mind if I hold off on that for a bit? I’d much rather tell you what happened next, after that night in the jail cell.”
“Yeah, of course,” I apologized, not wanting to rush him.
“There was a Bible in the cell. I picked it up and started reading. I can’t tell you how it happened but it’s like I already knew what was in it. Everything my grandmother ever taught me came back to me that night. Whatever she planted in my soul, it’s like it came alive. I’m telling you before the sun came up the next morning, I was saved and I knew it. I knew I’d serve out my sentence and that’d be it. I’d never be coming back to jail -- ever.”
He stopped, his smile came back, his look confident. “Oh, thank You, Lord! Just remembering that night makes me praise Him!”
I smiled back, echoing his thanks.
“The guys in prison knew something was different too. They’d come to me, spilling their guts, asking me to pray for them and I did. It’s like God had favor on me. He let me do for others like He was doing for me. I’m telling you, I saw miracles, prayers answered. Some of the guys got saved. I was there a couple of months and it was like the best time of my life. I almost didn’t want to leave but when I did, I came out a new man. I was never gonna be what I was.”
I sat there, amazed by his story.
“That’s when you and I met, remember that?” Ricky said, pointing at me. “And I asked you to pray for me. Man, I needed prayer. I hadn’t seen my daughters yet, not since the day they saw me arrested in front of my house. I was so scared. I was afraid they didn’t want to see me let alone talk to me.”
Again, Ricky turned his face toward the window. I could tell this was hard for him to relive.
“The Lord helped me. I said to Esther and Dora, ‘I know you’re not going to believe me. But something happened to me in prison. The Lord did something in my life. If I’m right about that, if I’ve changed, you’ll know it not because I’m saying it but because I’m living it. All I ask is that you pray for me.’
“But they wanted nothing to do with me. They were hurt – hurt bad. So I made up my mind to do the best I could. I went to rehab upstate. When I got out, I found a job, found a place to live, and started going back to church. The pastor is a good man. He took me under his wing and promised to help me.”
Ricky picked up the stack of papers and said, “And you can read the rest.”
“Hey, that’s not fair. You’ve got to finish the story!” I teased.
He got that Ricky smile again, ear to ear. “I gotta go.” He grabbed the check and went to the counter to pay for it. “If you don’t mind,” he said when he got back, “do what you can to make it better. I’ll try and finish it before we meet again.” We set a date two weeks out, same time, same place, and said our goodbyes.
As I walked to the car, I kept looking at this letter in my hand, a long letter, maybe thirty pages handwritten back and front. I found the place where he’d ended his story and, once in the car, I started reading. As always, Ricky surprised me. What I thought was coming next wasn’t coming at all.
Not yet anyway.
If I wasn’t working or home sleeping I was at the church. I wanted to be there to help out, clean up, do work projects on the building, be at every meeting I could. If the church went out to serve, I went. If they stayed back for prayer, I stayed back. Nothing in me wanted to be the man I used to be. I was free – really free.
One day, the pastor looked at me said, “Why are you always here?”
“I feel like God wants me here,” I replied.
“You doing what you do for Him or for you?” he asked.
“I hope it’s for Him.”
“You think about it and get back to me,” he said and walked away. That really bothered me. I prayed about it for weeks. I finally asked, “Lord, maybe I’m trying to prove myself to my daughters -- is that it? Is that why I’m doing all this?” I finally went to the pastor and asked him what he thought.
“What else could it be?”
“Could be guilt for what you’ve done. Guilt for the people you hurt. Guilt for the man you killed and the family he left behind. Guilt for the father you hate. Guilt for what you’ve done to your family. Guilt for all the sins you’ve done to God. Guilt that piles up as high as the mountains and pushes the soul down into hell.”
I hate it when I cry. The older I get the more it happens. But for me, it almost always happens when I feel the Holy Spirit working on me. And, right then, I started to cry in front of the pastor.
“You’re trying to pay it back, Ricky. Pay it all back. That’s what I think.”
“I’m doing my best, sir,” I told him, wiping my eyes. “I’m doing my best.”
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