ONCE UPON A TIME a King possessed three bottles of precious wine. Each bottle was a rare vintage blend that was bequeathed to him from his royal grandfather. The bottles, passed down from generation to generation, were carefully guarded and considered among the King's most treasured possessions.
One day the King set out to travel to distant country. He called his three most dependable servants and entrusted them with the ancient bottles, one to each. The King warned the servants not to open the bottles and then left for his journey.
The three servants were very curious about the King's command. The wine must be very fine and praiseworthy -- perhaps even a magic potion of some kind! Each of the servants secretly found themselves wanting to open the bottles to taste this special wine...
After awhile, the first servant couldn't withstand the temptation. He opened the bottle, tasted the wine, and was so overcome with desire that he drank the entire bottle. The second servant likewise wanted to open the bottle but because of his loyalty to the King, held himself back and busied himself with other affairs. The third servant, like the first, opened the bottle, tasted the wine, and was nearly driven to madness with desire to drink, but he restrained himself and overcame the temptation because of his love for the King.
When the King finally returned from his business, he called for his three servants to account for his wine. When he learned all the truth, he sentenced the first servant to death by hanging. To the second servant -- who didn't touch the wine at all -- the King gave a gift of 1,000 gold pieces. But to the third servant -- who tasted the wine but then stopped -- the King gave 10,000 gold pieces.
When the second servant heard what the third servant received, he was astonished. He went before the King and said, "My master, your royal highness, I didn't drink anything from the bottle you entrusted to me and you gave me 1,000 gold pieces. But why did you give to the one who drank some so much more than me? After all, he did not listen to you and even defied your commandment! It would have been gracious enough for you not to have punished him like the first servant, but why did you give him ten times the reward of mine?"
The King answered: "The reason is that you didn't taste the wine. It is likely that if you had done so, you would have drunk the whole bottle -- you would not have been able to subdue your desire because of the extraordinary qualities of this wine. But the servant who tasted the wine and yet withstood its allure proved his great love for me. His reward, therefore, is much greater."
The moral of this story is not to excuse any disobedience to the King, but to encourage those of us who have "tasted of the pleasures of sin" and yet have chosen to turn away for the sake of the love of God (Heb. 11:25). The second servant -- though he was technically righteous -- had been accustomed to do the right thing based on training and habit. He was the "religious" soul who never had tasted the flavor and allure of sinful pursuits. But the third servant represents the ba'al teshuvah (i.e. the penitent soul). He has tasted of the pleasures of sin and even become accustomed to them, yet despite all of this he choose to turn away from its allure because of his great love for God. His challenges are often far more difficult than those faced by the righteous servant, and his struggles are sometimes chronic and painful. Nonetheless, he presses on in his devotion, cleaving to the LORD despite the habits and demons of his past.
We are all called to return to the LORD, regardless of our personal histories, and there is special grace and compassion given to those who turn to Him despite the failures and difficulties of the past. Nonetheless, the sages forbid us to offer prayers that ask God to alter what has already occurred. Instead, we are called to return to the Source of healing and life. The first step is da lifnei mi attah omed: "Know before whom you stand" and to wake up to reality. Undergoing teshuvah is meant to lead us to back to the Father's love in grateful service. May it please the LORD to help us return to Him this hour....