Pastor David Eisenhuth
A judge recently ordered a Vancouver teenager to pay nearly $37 million in restitution after the boy started a major wildfire last year. Circuit Judge John A. Olson of Hood River, Oregon issued the opinion a few weeks ago. The damages totaled $36,618,330.24. The payment covers costs for firefighting and the repair and restoration of the affected area, the Columbia River Gorge.
The boy’s identity is being withheld by the authorities due to extreme public anger over the wildfire that was set off when the boy tossed two firecrackers into Eagle Creek Canyon last September. The fire resulted in evacuations, a lengthy shut-down of a busy interstate highway, and severe damage to the forest, a major tourist attraction.
The boy has since acknowledged his actions and has written more than 150 letters of apology to those who were affected. He pled guilty to reckless burning of public and private property. He was sentenced to probation for 10 years and ordered to serve 500 hours of community service. But let’s not forget the monetary fine that is payable over the course of 10 years!
Judge Olson’s opinion states the 15-year-old can set up a payment plan that can be halted after 10 years if he makes steady payments, finishes probation, and doesn’t commit any more crimes. At the hearing where the opinion was issued, the boy’s lawyer called for a “reasonable and rational” punishment, saying the demanded $37 million was an absurd amount for a child. The boy’s parents who are from the Ukraine were not held responsible.
Unless the boy has some deep pockets from an inheritance or a legal settlement of some kind, the only way he can pay even part of the fine is to get a job. Suppose he works at a fast food restaurant and gets a generous $10 an hour. If he works 40 hours a week, every week of the year for 10 years, he will make $208,000. That’s a far cry from $37,000,000. I suppose the whole thing is to make a point, but in the end, this is absurd.
The other day during one of my visits, someone asked me the meaning of grace. I didn’t have the time at that moment to explain something as important as grace. I promised I would return when I had more time. When I read about the boy and the fire he started, as well as that astronomical fine, it seemed to me to be the perfect explanation of grace.
If you think about our relationship with God in terms of some monetary unit (and the Medieval church did exactly that), we get something when we do good. Let’s think of it in terms of dollars, a currency we all understand. You go to church and you get $1. You help the old lady across the street – $2. You make a large contribution to some charity and you are personally rewarded $100 for your efforts. On and on through the course of your life it goes.
However, the converse is true too. When you do something wrong, money is subtracted from your account. Sass off to your parents and it’s $5. Adultery, oh, that’s a big one. You get a $500 debit. Lust is a big one, too. And on and on it goes.
When you die, judgment is like an audit of your account. Good is weighted against bad. If you have enough left in your account, then the pearly gates open for you. If not, in the classical way of thinking about things, you are on your way to less desirable accommodations. In the old days, the mental picture of the process was a scale. Not too long ago it would have been a calculator. Now you can imagine a computer doing all the work.
Hopefully all of us will have done more good and bad. But what is the price of admission? If salvation were counted in this crude fashion, the cost of your sin would be measured by the death and resurrection of God’s own son, Jesus Christ. It’s only through this means can sin be forgiven. Why God can’t just wipe it away with a word is a mystery. Jesus’ death is the way in which God chose to make it happen. This is atonement theology. Jesus’ death atones (pays) for our sin. And in God’s sight, sin is sin is sin. The cost of humankind’s sin would shock us. It would have to be counted not in the thousands, or millions, or billions, but in some number unimaginable. Truth is, no price could be set on it.
If you think about it this way, the price of admission is beyond what you could ever possibly pay. If that 15- year-old became a cardiac surgeon and paid everything he made in his lifetime to cover the cost of the fire he set, he would still be short of the fine. So are we when God asks us individually to pay up for our shortcomings in the divine plan.
But, that’s where grace comes in. While it will eventually be made abundantly clear to you exactly what your sin has cost you, God gives you the bill and surprise – there is zero balance. That’s grace. It is God’s love freely given to you. You can never earn it. You can never pay for it. It is extraordinarily expensive. It is unexpected. It is amazing. And it’s free.
Part 2 of the story is that grace should never be perceived as being cheap. We always bear in mind just how much it cost God to offer us grace. As we come to understand this, we appreciate what God has done and we try to live out God’s hopes and dreams for us. That’s the way of discipleship. But first comes grace. And again I say— it’s God’s love freely given.