This week has been a bit rough. We started the week talking about Ray Rice and the NFL’s handling of the physical abuse of Rice’s then-fiancée. The incident raised all sorts of questions about domestic violence: how genuine the NFL’s stance on domestic violence is, why people stay in abusive relationships, and what domestic violence really looks like. And then, just days later, we honored the anniversary of September 11th. We made space for those who are still mourning deaths, we remembered our own experiences of that day, and we reflected on how much our world has changed in the shadow of that event.
Needless to say, when pondering the horrors of domestic violence and terrorism, the absolute last thing I wanted to do this week was to pray on our gospel lesson from Matthew. The scene is familiar. Jesus has just told the disciples about how to resolve conflict within the community of faith, and Peter appears with a question. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” In other words, Peter basically comes to Jesus asking the question that we all want ask, “Okay, so I know you want us to be a community that honors God, even when we fight. But how many times, exactly, do we really have to forgive someone? I mean, surely there are limits to how many times we have to keep forgiving someone?” I give Peter credit. Peter manages to come off sounding pretty generous. I mean, how many of us would propose forgiving someone seven times before cutting them off completely? Instead, our most common colloquialism is “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” In our culture, we will forgive someone once and clear the slate. But if people cross us twice, we believe we would be foolish to stay in a relationship with them because they have proven that they cannot be trusted.
But Jesus does not concede to our modern sensibilities about forgiveness. Jesus’ response to Peter is shocking, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Now seventy-seven times is way more leeway with which most of us feels comfortable. And that is not even taking into account that some translations translate Jesus’ instructions not as seventy-seven times but seventy times seven.[i] Regardless, the point is that Jesus is basically saying that there is not true end to forgiveness. “There can be no limit on forgiveness, because [forgiveness] is a never-ending practice that is essential to the life of the church.”[ii]
What ultimately makes us feel uncomfortable about Jesus’ words is that when we begin to talk about forgiveness, most of us have some pretty distorted beliefs about forgiveness. Some of us believe that forgiveness means excusing or overlooking the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay. For those who hold that belief, forgiveness can be equated with stuffing our feelings down deep inside or downright lying in order to keep the peace. Others of us believe that forgiveness means allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behavior. For those who hold this belief, forgiveness is so important, that we become recurring victims of offenses. Still others believe that forgiving means forgetting what happened. For those who hold this belief, forgiveness is pretending an old hurt does not still hurt. Finally, others see forgiveness as something that we can do at will, and always all at once. For those who hold this belief, forgiveness must be immediate and offered quickly. The problem with all these models of forgiveness – of overlooking the harm, saying everything is okay, of allowing recurring behavior, of trying to forget, or forgiving once and for all – is that these models of forgiveness fall apart when we run into extreme situations like the ones from this week with Ray Rice or September 11th.
The tremendously good news this week is that all of these understandings about forgiveness would have been foreign to Jesus. I was reading one of my favorite authors this week on her thoughts about forgiveness. Jan Richardson says of forgiveness, “The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing [the harm] to go unchecked. [Forgiveness] is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways [the wrong] seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in [the damage’s] grip.”[iii]
That is why Jesus tells the hyperbolic parable about the servant and the forgiving king. The forgiveness by the king of ten thousand talents (or the equivalent of 150,000 years of labor)[iv] is almost ludicrous in its generosity. The servant would never have been able to pay that amount back. But then again, the forgiveness we receive from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is also ludicrous – ludicrously abundant, underserved, and more than we could ever earn. And yet, the times we struggle to forgive will be like when the unforgiving servant cannot forgive the hundred denarii owed by another servant (or the equivalent of a hundred days of labor) – a much less egregious amount to owe. In order to be a people who live under Jesus’ excessive forgiveness, we must be a people who are also willing to work on the art of forgiveness. But we do not do that work out of obligation – instead we do that work as a gift to ourselves.
There once was a woman who went to see her Rabbi. The woman was a divorced single mom who was working to support herself and her three children. She explained to the Rabbi that since her husband walked out on them, every month she struggled to pay the bills. Though she and the kids could not afford everyday treats like going to the movies, her ex-husband was living it up with his new wife. The Rabbi suggested that the woman forgive her ex-husband and she was indignant. “How can you tell me to forgive him,” she demanded. The Rabbi responded, “I’m not asking you to forgive him because what he did was acceptable. What he did was not acceptable – it was mean and selfish. I am asking you to forgive him because he does not deserve the power to live in your head and turn you into a bitter angry woman. I would like to see him out of your life emotionally as completely as he is out of your life physically, but you keep holding on to him. Know this: you are not hurting him by holding on to that resentment. You are only hurting yourself.”[v]
Jesus does not propose that we forgive seventy-seven or seventy times seven times because Jesus is a sadist. Jesus knows forgiving is hard. But Jesus also knows that the worst part about forgiveness is not that the work is hard. The worst part about forgiveness is that when we do not forgive, we only hurt ourselves. And Jesus does not want us to be locked in a prison of resentment and anger. Jesus wants us to be free. One of the reasons Jesus asks us to forgive so many times is because Jesus knows this work does not happen overnight. Forgiveness is not a once-and-for-all event. Forgiveness requires us to keep going, to keep trying, because only in the practice of trying – in fact trying until our earthly lives are over – will we ever come close to the profound forgiveness that we receive through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord. Our work on mastering the art of forgiveness is not a gift that we give to others. Our work on mastering the art of forgiveness is the gift that we give to ourselves. We work on the art of forgiveness because we are working on loving ourselves as much as Jesus loves us. Amen.
[i] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.
[ii] Charles Campbell, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.
[iii] Jan Richardson, “The Hardest Blessing,” Sept. 9, 2014, as found at http://paintedprayerbook.com/2014/09/09/the-hardest-blessing/#.VBOogcKwKi0.
[v] Paraphrased story by Harold S. Kushner, quoted by Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 72.