It was a typical morning in heaven. An angel choir sang at dawn. It being heaven, that was lovely, and everyone woke up totally refreshed. The prophets had taken over several booths in their favorite diner, one-upping each other with stories from the old days. It being heaven, nobody minded that they were hearing the same stories for the (approximately) 10,000th time.
Jeremiah told about the time the Lord told him to walk around with a yoke across his shoulders, warning everyone to put their necks under the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar or be destroyed. He rubbed the back of his neck as if he’d only just removed it.
Elijah reenacted the scene with the prophets of Baal. He was the spoon, and they were the toothpicks, limping around their danish plate altar, cutting themselves and crying uselessly to their god to send fire. He got the usual big laugh at his taunt, “Maybe Baal is daydreaming, or off taking a piss.”
Hosea spun his gloomy tale of being told to marry a prostitute, let her return to her profession, and then purchase her back and live with her as his wife again, but Samuel lightened the mood with his spit-take that described how he wanted to react when the Lord led him to anoint the young David over his older and, frankly, more impressive-looking brothers.
But Isaiah sighed. His spoon clinked against the sides of the mug (in heaven, all food was perfect for your tastes the moment you requested it, but Isaiah found the stirring meditative). “I miss pleading the people’s case before the Lord.”
That got everyone quiet and nodding.
It was all joy all the time these days, but they weren’t needed like they were when they were on earth. They weren’t tired of heaven — the complete security in being loved, the no longer needing to strive to please, and the out-of-this-world food, company, and entertainment — but they were nostalgic for the days when they had a purpose.
“Maybe Jesus would let you take a turn as advocate in the Court of Heaven,” Samuel said.
Isaiah swiped the air in front of his face, dismissing that suggestion.
“If any of us could do it, it’d be you,” Hosea said. “After all, you made the most prophecies about Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Elijah said. “He likes you.”
This was one of their favorite jokes, because Jesus liked everyone. They all chucked, except Isaiah.
“Where’s the harm?” Jeremiah asked. “The worst he could say is, ‘no,’ and you had way worse said and done to you on earth.”
Isaiah snorted. “That’s for sure.”
They sat in silence with each other, listening to musicians from Bach to Jimi Hendrix trade licks in the bandshell, until Isaiah put his palms flat on the table. “I’ll do it.”
And then he was outside the double doors at the entrance to the Court of Heaven (because that’s how travel works there). His stomach was fluttery with nerves, which it hadn’t been in three thousand years. Jesus and two Court of Heaven angels hung out by the doors, on break. Their mood was so buoyant, they stood a foot above the floor.
Isaiah frowned. He expected the atmosphere to be more serious, and was reconsidering his request when Jesus called him over. There was no turning back. “My Lord, I love to worship. I live to worship. But I’d like to serve the people in front of our Father again.”
Jesus was silent.
“I mean, if I’m not overreaching, I hope you won’t be offended–”
“You can just say it.” Although Jesus interrupted Isaiah, his tone wasn’t impatient.
“May I plead for the people’s cases this afternoon?”
Jesus gave Isaiah a long, searching stare. Isaiah was sure he’d be found wanting. After all, who was he compared to Jesus? But then He said, “Give it a shot.”
The double doors opened and Jesus ushered Elijah into a tiny, plain room with a filing cabinet, a desk, and a straight-backed wooden chair. This was not at all the grand space Isaiah had imagined. God the Father was there — Isaiah felt His presence — but not in visible form.
“Father,” Jesus said. “Isaiah will take the next case.”
The top drawer of the filing cabinet opened. Jesus hefted the first file and flopped it on the desk. It was huge and unwieldy, with half the papers spilling out. Isaiah sat and opened it, preparing himself for horrible tales of perversion that must warrant such a file. He frowned. Outside of a little high school and college stupidity, for which she’d confessed and asked forgiveness, there wasn’t–
“Court of Heaven versus Natalie Hart,” the angel bailiff announced. “Prophet Isaiah for the defense.”
Isaiah cleared his throat and stood. This’d be simple. “My Lord, I am grateful for the opportunity to come before you today and–”
“Yes, my Lord.”
“Here are today’s cases.”
There was a rumble to Isaiah’s right and he looked to see the filing cabinet zoom higher than he could see. He gulped. “Uh, yes. Since the world began, no ear has heard, and no eye has seen a God like you, who works for those who wait for him. You welcome those who cheerfully do good, who follow godly ways. That describes my client, who goes to church, uses her gifts for your glory, and studies your Word, not every day, to be sure, but pretty close, most of the time, recently. Who tithes. Who frequently comes to you in prayer. Please don’t remember her sins forever. Because of your mercy and your compassion, forgive her.” Maybe it was a little vain to use some of his old words, but Isaiah thought it was a stirring speech.
“Have you looked all the way through her file?”
Either God was truly not pleased or this was a test. It was always hard to tell at first. Isaiah stammered and frantically flipped pages.
God didn’t let him struggle for long. “What about her recurring problems with anger, bitterness, discouragement, lack of trust, unkind thoughts, pride, excessive daydreaming about personal glory, lack of discipline and perseverance, lack of follow-through?”
Isaiah blinked. “But she does everything she’s supposed to do–”
“Pah,” God said. “You left out some of your own words: ‘When we proudly display our righteous deeds, we find they are but filthy rags.’ Classic trying to work out her own salvation, to find her worth in what she does.”
“Even you must admit, God, that her heart is generally in the right place.” Isaiah’s own heart pounded. “She’s a good, moral person, who is genuinely trying to do better. You would’ve saved Sodom and Gomorrah for one such as her. Have mercy on her.”
“My mercy grows thin with repeated rebellion. I will be repaid in full for the debt of her sins.”
This was how it had been back then, too. The Lord vowed to punish his people; sometimes he could be convinced not to, and sometimes He couldn’t. Isaiah hung his head in acceptance, and then jumped when he felt a sudden hand on his shoulder.
“May I?” Jesus whispered.
“Please.” Isaiah sat and patted the sweat from his forehead.
“If it please the judge,” Jesus said. “In the matter of the Court of Heaven versus Natalie Hart, please note that her debt has been cleared. I have paid it.”
Isaiah stared at Jesus. That was so…straightforward.
Jesus continued, “Strike the record of Natalie’s sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”
“So be it,” God said. And there was the sound of a gavel banging.
That file disappeared and another immediately took its place.
After the bailiff announced it, Jesus said, “His debt has been cleared. I have paid it. Strike the record of his sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”
Another one. “Her debt has been cleared. I have paid it. Strike the record of her sins and replace it with my record of righteousness.”
Twenty more times, the same thing. And then twenty more. Tears streamed down Isaiah’s cheeks, soaking his beard.
Just as a very slim file made its way to the table, there was a pop in the room, and there stood one of the Evil One’s dark angels. “Witness for the prosecution.” His voice was as oily as his hair.
Isaiah’s stomach clenched. He’d never seen a dark angel in heaven before. But, calm as could be, Jesus gestured for him to go ahead.
“You can’t let this one get off easy,” the dark angel said. “Deathbed confessions are so hard to take seriously.”
“I told stories about this on earth.” Jesus shrugged. “All that’s required for the debt being clear is the person’s acceptance of it. Doesn’t matter when. I already paid it.”
“But these sins were huge. Huge!” The dark angel narrowed his eyes as if he were playing his trump card. “How can you have mercy on someone who never had mercy on a single person in his whole life?”
“It isn’t mercy.” The deep growl of God’s voice vibrated through Isaiah’s bones. “It’s justice.”
The dark angel scoffed.
“It is justice,” Jesus said. “I paid his debt. He accepted the payment when he accepted me. You can’t make someone pay the same debt twice. My record of righteousness now stands in for his record of sins, as a gift. He couldn’t have worked out his own salvation, even if he’d been ‘a good person.’ I’ve already–”
“Heard you the first time.” The dark angel glared at Isaiah. “I thought you prophets were supposed to be all into pronouncing judgment. How can you be a part of this?”
Isaiah bared his teeth, but it wasn’t really a smile. “I was only ever the mouthpiece of my Lord.”
The dark angel rolled his eyes and disappeared with a pop.
“So….” Jesus turned to Isaiah.
“So mercy can grow thin, but justice–” Isaiah’s voice cracked.
“Justice has unavoidable logic,” Jesus said. “Sin creates a debt. A debt that must be paid. I’ve paid it. Nobody can pay twice for the same debt.” He glanced at the filing cabinet. “I wish they’d stop trying.”