“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
These words are from the 51st Psalm, considered to be scripture’s quintessential prayer of penitence. Tradition says the verses were penned by the great King David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan about plotting the death of his friend Uriah so that he could marry Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, who was already pregnant with David’s child.
David’s words, which are our psalm for this fifth Sunday in Lent, are a powerful, personal plea for forgiveness.
“Have mercy on me, O God,” David cries in anguish. “Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin.
“Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.”
These are the words of someone who is truly sorry for what he has done, who knows the agony of being separated from God, who implores God for forgiveness and renewal.
I thought of David’s impassioned prayer when I read the story of another murderer. This killer was no king, but a member of a Brooklyn gang. He was confronted about his actions not by a prophet from God, but by a New York state judge.
There were no pleas for mercy from this young man, no agonized requests that God create in him a new heart and renew a right spirit within him.
Instead, the young man spent his entire trial with a deadly stare on his face that never varied. “It was his beacon of hate, warning everyone to stay away,” State Supreme Court Justice Albert Tomei wrote in a column for The New York Times.
“If the eyes are the window to the soul, the defendant’s soul was in the firm grasp of Beelzebub.”
Every day for two weeks the family of the young man’s victim came to court to hear the details of the trial and be present when their loved one’s killer was convicted. On the day the man was sentenced, his victim’s mother and grandmother testified.
Tomei notes that family members of victims rarely have anything kind to say to the person responsible for their loved one’s death. Usually they speak virulent words of hatred and anguish, expressing their desire for revenge and retribution.
That’s what Tomei expected as the dead man’s mother turned slowly toward her son’s convicted killer and gazed into his lethal stare.
But when she spoke her words were soft, muted by her grief. “I have no bad feelings,” she said. “I could never hate you.”
And for the first time since the trial began, the judge says, the killer’s eyes lost their laser-like glare and he slumped in the chair.
As the mother sat down, the dead man’s grandmother took the stand. She also looked directly into the eyes of the man who killed her grandson.
“You did the crime and you’ve got to do the time,” she said. “You broke the golden rule: loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind. You broke the law: loving your neighbor as yourself. I am you neighbor.
“So anyway,” she continued, “you have my address. You want to write, I’ll write back, because I have sat here for two weeks, and for 16 months I tried to hate you.
“But you know what? I could not hate you. I feel sorry for you because you made a wrong choice.”
After the grandmother finished, Judge Tomei looked at the defendant. “His head was hanging low,” the judge said. “There was no more swagger, no more stare. The destructive and evil forces within him collapsed helplessly before this remarkable display of humaneness.”
The heart of a killer had been touched.
We began the season of Lent more than a month ago with a prayer that God would touch all of us, making in us new and contrite hearts. This is the season in which we are called to be particularly aware of our sins, the things that separate us from God and one another.
King David, confessing his responsibility for the death of another man, cries to God, “Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”
That does not mean that he has not offended another human being, but that all sins against our neighbors are ultimately offenses against God.
David begs God for forgiveness, and we have no doubt that God does forgive him, that David’s heart is cleansed and his spirit renewed.
Forgiveness is at the heart of God’s character. Time and time again throughout scripture – in both the Old and New Testaments – God forgives us.
God’s covenant with the people of Israel, made first with Abraham, then again with Moses and all the people of Israel in the wilderness, and – as we heard in today’s Old Testament reading – renewed yet again in the time of the prophet Jeremiah – is marked by graciousness and forgiveness.
Time and time again God chooses to forgive.
“I will write it on their hearts,” we hear God say in today’s reading from Jeremiah. “I will be their God and they shall be my people. I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.”
God has offered clean hearts to all the people of Israel and renewed a spirit of forgiveness in them.
Just as forgiveness is at the heart of God’s character and at the core of God’s covenant with Israel, so is it central to the ethics of Jesus.
Jesus makes it clear that his disciples are expected to forgive. “How many times must I forgive someone who has wronged me?” one disciple asks.
“Seventy times seven,” Jesus replies, not meaning that we should keep a scorecard of our forgiving and quit when we reach 490, but that our forgiveness should have no limits – just as there are no limits to the number of times God forgives a sinful humanity.
Forgiveness stands at the heart of the Christian life – God’s forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of others and ourselves. It may be a lifelong process, but it must always be our goal.
We all know that this is much easier said than done. True forgiveness does not come easily. That is why the story of the mother and grandmother in the New York courtroom is so amazing – unusual enough for a judge to write about it in the newspaper.
I cannot imagine the grace and courage it took for those women to forgive the killer of their child, a man who showed no repentance or remorse, who did not ask for forgiveness or even acknowledge the horror of the crime he had committed, a killer who seemed to have no humanity in him at all.
I must confess that I have difficulty forgiving far lesser offenses, and I suspect that I am not the only one here today who finds true forgiveness a struggle. In fact, a book a few years ago asks the question in its title – Is Human Forgiveness Possible?
These women – this mother and grandmother – did forgive. They did so without denying their grief and pain or minimizing the horror of the offense.
“I could never hate you,” the mother said.
“I cannot hate you,” the grandmother echoed.
And with those godly words, new hearts were created – for the killer, who suddenly became more human—and for the mother and grandmother who knew somehow that carrying the burden of hatred would ultimately do nothing but kill their souls and harden their hearts.
Next Sunday we will begin Holy Week. We will hear the story of Jesus’ betrayal and death, his torture and execution. And we will hear once again the words he says as he hangs dying on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
All of us – those who participated in the actual crucifixion and all sinners since that time – are included in Jesus’ gracious act.
Is human forgiveness possible?
Yes, we believe, because the one who died on the cross made it so.
“Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit with us.”