Who shot J.R.? That’s a short sentence that in 1980 created a television tradition that continues to this day: the season-ending cliffhanger. “Dallas” was one of the most-watched series on television at the time and much of America spent that summer waiting for the answer. It’s estimated some 350 million worldwide tuned in on November 21, 1980, to learn that Kristin Shephard shot him. There have been hundreds of season-ending cliffhangers on various series since then. There are also two powerful cliffhangers in the Bible: Philemon and The Parable of the Lost Son in the Gospel of Luke. Both deal with forgiveness. The cliffhanger in each is whether forgiveness was ever granted.

Philemon was a Christ-follower who apparently came to Christ through the Apostle Paul. His slave, Onesimus, stole from him and fled. Onesimus also experienced a conversion and spent time with Paul. At some point, Paul realized it was time for Onesimus to return to Philemon and make things right. But Paul sent with him a letter, asking Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as a slave, but rather as a brother in Christ:

I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord. Philemon 12-16 (NIV)

It’s not entirely clear how Philemon responded, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he granted Onesimus his freedom. First, we know about the letter. If Philemon ignored Paul, it seems doubtful the letter would have survived. Second, it’s possible Onesimus went on to a leadership position in the church. It’s possible (but debated among academics) that this Onesimus was the same one consecrated a bishop by the Apostles and who accepted the episcopal throne in Ephesus following Timothy. It seems likely Philemon forgave Onesimus as Paul urged him to, but we’ll never know for sure.

The second forgiveness cliffhanger is present in The Parable of the Lost Son. In one of the more familiar stories in the Bible, found in Luke 15, a wayward son demands his share of the inheritance from his father and quickly squanders it. When he returns home, his father quickly forgives him and throws a virtual festival for him. His older brother is outraged that their father would welcome him so warmly:

‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” Luke 15:29-32 (NIV)

Here, we are given just one tiny clue as to whether the older brother ever forgave the younger brother. In this parable, the father is a representation of God, the lost son is a representation of, well, us, and every other sinner ever born. The older son represents the Pharisees, a sect of Jewish leaders who harshly held believers to the impossible to fulfill Jewish law. Given the Pharisees ultimately succeeded in having Jesus crucified, we can guess that the older brother never forgave. But Jesus leaves the matter uncertain, perhaps letting the listening Pharisees know that, at that point, there was still time to accept Him. In each case, we can only guess. Neither cliffhanger is entirely resolved. Now let me tell you a modern story that ends with certain forgiveness.

In 2018, a Green Bay taxi driver in her 50s was savagely beaten and robbed by four teens, bruised beyond recognition, and left for dead. In fact, the injuries were life-threatening. I have come to know her through Samaritan’s Heart Mission Church. She has forgiven all four attackers, completely. All four were sentenced to prison and she is convinced her ordeal was necessary, that God used her to create the consequences that He would use to turn around the lives of those four teens.

Four years later, the brutality of the attack continues to have serious health impacts on her. Yet, there is no forgiveness cliffhanger in this story. It is complete. And she inspires me in ways I cannot describe. I hope her story of endurance, faith and trust in the Lord inspires you. I pray that there be no forgiveness cliffhangers in your life.

Pastor Jerry Bader

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