Forgiveness is a funny thing. Forgiveness is at the heart of our gospel proclamation. We regularly talk about how Jesus the Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. We spend six whole weeks in Lent repenting of our sins, making the long journey toward Good Friday and the empty tomb, where our sins are forgiven. We want to be forgiven. We admire others’ displays of forgiveness – retelling stories of victims who should never have to forgive, but somehow valiantly do. We sometimes condescendingly tell others they should forgive. We even ardently require our children to accept apologies, without really explaining what forgiveness is. But when we are facing an injustice, an injury, an event that pierces our heart when remembered, and we are told to forgive, our immediately response is, “Whoa, now!”
Perhaps that reaction is at the heart of Peter’s inquiry today. The disciples and Jesus have been talking about reconciliation within the community of faith when someone has harmed another. At the end of that conversation, Peter wisely asks, “Yeah, but how many times do I actually need to forgive someone. Seven times should be plenty right? That’s a good, holy number.” And Jesus says, “Seventy-seven times,” or as some translators say, seventy times seven.[i] Whichever number we use, Jesus is not just setting some higher number to track; Jesus is saying forgiveness must be offered constantly, in an ongoing way.
The problem when we talk about forgiveness is we can think of endless examples of things that should be unforgiveable. In our news streams this week, we saw conversations about institutional racism, stemming from the centuries-long practice of slavery in our country; we remembered the horror of September 11th and the thousands of people who died, were traumatized by, or whose health was permanently impacted by that event; we saw cases of abuse by spouses or those in positions of power. And that is just on the meta-level. In truth, even on the micro-level, we struggle. We struggle with those instances where someone hurt us personally – the breaking of our trust or the hurtful things said and done by friends, family, or even strangers. When we need to be the agents of forgiveness, somehow our gilded concept of forgiveness begins to crack.
Part of the problem is our definition of forgiveness. When we talk about forgiveness, we forget to talk about what forgiveness is not. Debie Thomas does an amazing job of walking us through what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not denial: pretending an offense does not matter, the wound does not hurt, we should just forget, or our merciful God cannot be angered or grieved. Forgiveness is not a detour or shortcut: forgiveness cannot be offered without repentance, discipline, and confession – there is no grace without the cross. Forgiveness is also not synonymous with healing or reconciliation: healing can take a long time and sometimes reconciliation is not possible – in this way, forgiveness is a beginning, not the end. Finally, forgiveness is not quick and easy: forgiveness is a non-linear, messy process, that takes time.[ii]
When we let down our defensiveness about forgiveness, we can see those same lessons in Holy Scripture today. In our Old Testament lesson, Joseph’s brothers come to him after their father’s death, fearing Joseph will finally enact justified revenge for them selling him into slavery. Now, Joseph has already forgiven the brothers before his father’s death – and is explicit about his forgiveness. But the brothers know what we just talked about – forgiveness is not quick and easy. They fear Joseph’s forgiveness has limits. And in our Gospel lesson, when Jesus uses a parable to talk to Peter about forgiving seventy times seven, he does not tell a story about someone forgiving again and again. Instead he tells the story of a man forgiven an unimaginable debt – one he could never have paid off in his lifetime, who then refuses to show forgiveness to another in a much smaller, manageable debt. The parable highlights how forgiveness is not denial – how God is merciful, but can still be angered by our actions.
As one scholar reminds us, “Forgiveness is hard, really hard. But the good news is that where God calls, God also equips. God gives us in Christ the gift of forgiveness and helps us to share that gift with others. And in doing so, God opens doors that are shut. God opens a future that is shut. By forgiving those who have sinned against us, we do not allow the past to dictate our future. Forgiveness breaks the chains of anger and bitterness and frees us to live new lives.”[iii] The hard work of forgiveness is no joke. Forgiveness takes time, is hard, and is a winding path. But the cross of Christ enables us to keep going, enables us claim love – not a love that relativizes evil or negates the justice that is also of God – but a love that can transform both the oppressor and the oppressed – can heal both us and them. And Jesus tells us today that despite the fact forgiveness is hard, forgiveness is also work we can do through him. Thanks be to God.
[i] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 69.
[ii] Debie Thomas, “Unpacking Forgiveness,” September 6, 2020, as found at https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?fbclid=IwAR1uTVaenGNYgJX-mpph8V_97k_S-kIWEbuuSMwkzJKLohX0XbYvuveEk9k on September 11, 2020.
[iii] Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Forgiveness is at the Core,” Setpember 6, 2020, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5454 on September 11, 2020.