It was on a February evening, eleven years ago, I happened to be sitting on the couch watching the CBS Evening News, and as the broadcast came to an end, it closed with one of those typical “feel good” segments. It was a Steve Heartman’s Assignment America. It riveted me in place…
The opening scene faded into a small, modest apartment in North Minneapolis. A fifty-nine-year-old woman was ironing her clothes for the day. Her name was Mary Johnson. She was a teacher’s aide, and as she got ready to go to school, she was gently humming and singing hymns of praise. Now that wouldn’t have been unusual—many Christians do that as they get ready in the morning—but if you knew Mary’s story, you’d wonder why someone like her would be singing the praises of the Lord at all. You’d expect the opposite, for if anyone was to have issues with the Lord, it would be Mary Johnson.
You see, on another February evening, back in 1993, Mary’s son, Laramiun, was shot and killed at a party just a few blocks away from where she lived. He was only 20, and he was Mary’s only child. It all started with a stupid argument that escalated, and the punk who pulled the trigger was a sixteen-year-old kid named Oshea Israel.
With her only son gone and with no chance to say good-bye, Mary’s heart was ice. She wanted justice.
“I felt like He was an animal. He deserved to be caged,” she said.
And he was. Oshea was tried as an adult and sentenced to twenty-five and a half years. But, as is often the case, he wound up serving only seventeen years before being released.
Then he moved back… back to his old neighborhood. In fact, his new apartment was right next door to Mary’s. Their doors almost touched.
Now you might wonder how it is that a convicted murderer ended-up living a door jamb away from his victim’s mother, but this is not a story of horrible misfortune, as you might expect. Rather, it is one of remarkable mercy and incredible forgiveness. It certainly was no accident.
You see, a few years before Oshea’s release, Mary had worked up the courage to pay a visit to Minnesota’s Stillwater State Prison. As a devout Christian, she felt compelled to see if there was some way, somehow, she could forgive her son’s killer. She knew it wouldn’t be easy.
For Oshea, it was a moment he’d never forget for the rest of his life. He sat down, looked up through the bullet-proof glass, and saw the last person on earth he’d ever expect to see visiting him. And Mary didn’t curse him. She didn’t rant at him about the evil he had done to her. All she said was, “You don’t know me. I don’t know you. So, let’s just start with right now.” And that was the beginning of a strange and wonderful relationship.
Later, when Oshea got out of prison, Mary introduced him to her landlord, who with Mary’s blessing, invited Oshea to move into the apartment building. Mary helped him rebuild his life, found him a job at a local recycling plant and encouraged him to take college courses at night. She was his support system.
For Oshea, it wasn’t easy. “I haven’t totally forgiven myself yet. I’m learning to forgive myself,” he said. But he was determined to payback Mary’s clemency by contributing to society. In fact, he was already working on it – singing the praises of God and the power of forgiveness in local prisons where he lead bible studies.
However, Mary, when asked about it all and how she was able to forgive so much, gives God all the credit, of course, but she also concedes a more selfish motive. “Unforgiveness is like cancer,” she says. “It will eat you from the inside out. Me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done. Yes, he murdered my son, but the forgiveness is for me as much as it is for him.”
She adds, “It’s amazing how a conversation can take you a long way toward forgiving.” Of course maybe that explains why Mary Johnson is able to sing her praise to the Lord, who sometimes works in the strangest ways.
Now, for a pastor, a story like this is gold. There I was about to go prepare for a sermon on one of the most difficult commands in the bible–LOVE YOUR ENEMIES—and then the prefect sermon illustration just pops up on the TV. Needless to say, I’ve used this story many times over the years, even this past Sunday when I preached on Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. (At the bottom of this post, I’ve included a YouTube link to the original.)
Even after eleven years, since I first heard about Mary Johnson on the CBS Evening News, I still find it almost too much to believe that this woman could not only move past her anger and hatred but also forgive the man who murdered her son, and then go so far as to help him rebuild his life. Who does that? How can anyone show that much kindness and mercy? Mary treated Oshea as if he was her son, even after all the hurt he’d caused–and it cost the life of Laramium, her one and only true son. Laramium had to die, to make this unlikely relationship possible.
Now that sounds eerily like the Gospel, itself.
Yet, all Mary did was nothing more than Jesus has asked us all to be willing to do: “Love your enemies.”
In response, Martin Luther once commented on this strange command. He said, “If the great, sublime article called the forgiveness of sins is correctly understood, it is truly what makes one a genuine Christian and gives one eternal life. And yet to do so is the one, supreme, and most difficult task of Christians. As long as we live here below, we shall have enough to do simply to learn this article of faith. No one need look for anything new, anything higher and better. To forgive as Christ has taught us is hard enough.”
Perhaps, because learning how to forgive and love as God has forgiven and loved us is so hard for us to understand and actually do, maybe, then, it is actually good for you and me to have our enemies. They provide the perfect opportunity for us to be imitators of God: to give food and drink to those who wish you to starve; to clothe those who would strip you of possessions or reputation; to defend those who attack you; to befriend those who would murder your son… In short, aren’t these all the ways that God has forgiven and loved us?
Why make such a fuss about loving those who love you back; don’t even tax-collectors do the same? But if you love those who have hurt you, hate you, and do evil to you, then, O Christian, you are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect!
Well, not quite perfect… but you get my point.
Yes, how good it is for us to have enemies, for without them, when would we ever have the opportunity to fulfill, joyfully and willingly, the law of Christian love? And on the occasions when we actually manage to do what Mary did, only then can we truly begin to sing the praises of the Lord, who works in the strangest of ways.