It was a Sunday in Lent, and I was walking into my church in downtown Chicago. The sermon that day was to be devoted to one of Jesus' most infamous disciples, the one who betrayed him into the hands of those who would deliver him over to death: Judas.
An usher handed me a bulletin on the way in. Its cover was almost entirely black, with this quote from theology professor Frederick Niedner in stark white print: "Have you ever wondered whether, upon hearing Jesus' new commandment about the way disciples should now love one another, any one of them went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?"
I was taken aback by the question: Did anyone go back for him? The answer, of course, was no. They left Judas behind, to be overcome with remorse (Matthew 27:3), to attempt to make amends by returning the blood money he had received for his betrayal (Matthew 27: 3-5) and finally, to take his own life in shame and despair (Matthew 27: 5). Jesus, the one who forgave, who asked God to forgive also, was no longer there.
That's a lot like us. We do that--leave behind even those who are overcome with remorse and try to make amends. This country is one of the few in the world which locks up people who have done wrong at a young age forever. We have, in many states and under federal law, sentences which imprison those who committed crimes as juveniles for the rest of their natural lives, with no possibility of parole. We put them in prison, and they come out in a coffin. We leave them behind. We never go back for them.
Almost 100 juvenile offenders are serving that sentence in my State of Illinois. Nationwide, there are estimated to be thousands of such prisoners languishing behind bars. No matter how much they change as they become young adults and middle aged and elderly, that sentence means they will never be released. We leave them to despair.
This matters to me, this never turning back for those who have killed--or aided and abetted a killing, as Judas did. On the night before Palm Sunday twenty-five years ago, a juvenile murdered my sister Nancy Bishop Langert, her husband Richard and their unborn child (Nancy was pregnant when a 16-year-old intruder shot them to death in their home).
The killer was given a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing Nancy and Richard, and a discretionary sentence of natural life for killing their unborn baby.
When he got that sentence, I was glad. It meant I never had to think about the murderer again. I could leave him behind, go forward in my life thinking only of Nancy and Richard and how to honor their lives with my own.
God would not let me. God changed my heart, made me turn and look back, go back to reach out to the killer, to tell him that God loved him, that I forgave him, that he is not alone.
I tell the story of how that happened in my first book, just released, Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister's Killer (Westminster John Knox Press).
His name is David Biro. He serves out his time in a small cell in a grim prison, Stateville Correctional Center, outside Joliet, Illinois. He has written to me to confess to his crime, to express his sorrow and regret. He has tried to live a quiet and productive life in prison. He has little hope of being released, ever.
Jesus has gone; he couldn't save Judas, and he won't intercede for David Biro. But we are here. We can turn around and look for them, these young people whose crimes condemned them forever. We can go back for them.