Pastor Steve Mechem
Matthew 18:21-22 New Revised Standard Version
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Forgiveness is at the core of the Christian experience - receiving forgiveness and offering forgiveness.
In fact, forgiveness seems to be so important to faith, that Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you forgive others for the wrongs they do to you, then your Father in heaven will also forgive your wrongs. But if you don’t forgive others, then your Father in heaven will not forgive the wrongs you do.”
But truth be told, forgiveness is much easier said than done.
Which bring us to today’s passage.
Peter is puzzled.
He has heard Jesus drone on about forgiveness and is struggling with the implications of Jesus' words. Sure, he gets the concept of forgiveness, but Jesus seems to be talking in practical, existential, real life terms rather than the usual pious claptrap.
And, in Peter's thinking, while forgiveness as a solitary act might be a positive thing, Jesus talks about it like its an ongoing activity of life. Its one thing to forgive somebody for an offense, but what happens the second time they offend, or the third. What then?
So Peter approaches Jesus with a very practical question about forgiving.
“Suppose,” Peter asks, “somebody offends me, sins against me, and I forgive them. Then they offend me again and again. How long must I keep forgiving- how about 7 times?”
To me, it seems like Peter is going above and beyond. Seriously, I have to suffer this knucklehead's nonsense time and time again? Actually, seven times seems like six too many.
I imagine Jesus’ face as he responds to Peter. I see a big o’ ear to ear smile come across the Savior’s face. Maybe, with the lilt of laughter in his voice, he responds, “No, no, no, seven will never do. Let’s imagine 77 times!!” It should be noted that the Greek wording is a bit confusing here leading some bibles to translate it 70 X 7, or 490 times. Well that’s just ridiculous. It might as well be 4,900 times.
Whatever it is, it is well beyond my abilities. But then as I read more of Jesus, it seems that there is a cycle of forgiveness and that for God’s forgiveness of us to be actualized, we too must be take on the role of forgiver.
Maybe it helps a little to understand what is meant by forgiveness.
But first, what forgiveness is not.
Forgiving is not forgetting. Forgiveness is an act of will, whereas, forgetting is a function of your brain. You can’t snap your fingers and forget an offense; you can as an act of the will commit yourself to forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not giving up on the need for justice. Forgiveness may remove from you your need for retribution, but it does not remove the call for fairness and equity. So, forgiveness doesn’t mean letting somebody get away with bad behavior or lead you to refuse to report bad stuff when it needs to be reported.
Forgiving does not mean trusting. Several years ago I used an illustration that is perhaps the most remembered illustration I have used since I have been here.
Suppose I am walking down the hallway and I pass Linda. Linda has a big o fry pan in her hand. I say, “Hi Linda, how are you?” She swings the fry pan, knocks me upside my head, and I fall to the floor in a heap.
Immediately Linda apologizes and asks forgiveness. Following Jesus' command, I forgive her.
The next day, the same thing happens. Again She asks for forgiveness and I forgive her.
The next day, I am walking down the hallway and I see Linda again with a fry pan in her hand. So, I turn down a different hallway, because Linda, with a frypan cannot be trusted.
Forgiveness does not mean trusting.
Forgiveness does not dismiss bad behavior. Rudeness is rudeness, Jerks are jerks, mean people are mean people and forgiveness does not change them. And it does not mean you have to endure their behavior.
Forgiveness does not mean that you need to be friends. As Anne LaMott reminds us, forgiveness does not mean you do lunch together. Paul Meier, in his great little book, Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You, writes, “Forgiving a jerk does not mean that you have to cozy up to that Jerk and become fast friends. In fact, in most cases, you will need to keep away from jerks who mistreat you. Avoid them, if at all possible. If necessary, change jobs, golf partners, or the route you drive to work.”
Forgiveness does not mean that you don't need to walk away. Sadly, people have remained in abusive relationships because they have confused forgiveness with enduring abuse. If you are in an abusive relationship, you can forgive and you must walk away.
So, What does forgiveness mean?
Forgiveness, the word used by Jesus in the greek New Testament is αφιημι, and it means to
to give up,
to leave behind.
Forgiveness means you give up the need for satisfaction, for retribution, for revenge, for punishment. Papa, in the novel The Shack, declares, Forgiveness is about “letting go of another person’s throat.”
Forgiveness is an indicator of inner strength. Sadly, some equate forgiveness with weakness or cowardice. Truth be told, it is the opposite of that. It takes tremendous intestinal fortitude to forgive- to let go, to release. Gandhi goes so far as to say that only the strong can forgive.
Forgiveness is liberating. Nelson Mandela tells us that if we don’t leave the bitterness and hatred behind, we’ll always be in a prison of our own making. A bumper sticker I once saw read “when you forgive, you are refusing to let someone else live rent free in your head.”
Forgiveness is a lifestyle. Dr. King reminds us that forgiveness is not a singular act, but a constant attitude.
Forgiveness means letting go of the dream that the past can be better. What has been has been and no amount of dwelling there will change it. So, forgiveness becomes an avenue to fresh starts.
Forgiveness is necessary if we are to move forward. The journey we walk is wrought with obstacles and forgiveness is an essential tool for navigating through those obstacles. As long as we are bitter, we can’t get better. Forgiveness is refusing bitterness its hold.
So, how do we do it? How do we learn to practice forgiveness as a integral part of our lives.
Jesus demands it, but it is so hard.
After all, there is a kind of comfort we experience in nursing a grudge and hoping for pay back.
And there is, by all accounts, a societal mandate for revenge and retribution.
Yet, Jesus is consistent in his teaching about forgiveness- do it. There aren’t caveats or exceptions, there is just the command- do it.
I am thinking that when Jesus answers Peter’s question about forgiveness, he notices in Peter’s reaction - a kind of disbelief, a lack of understanding. Because let’s face it, the ability to continue forgiving offense after offense, time after time, 7 or 77 or 490 times, appears to be more supernatural than human.
And so, Jesus tells a parable about a person who has a huge debt forgiven only to turn on a friend who owes him very little. When the one who forgave the massive debt becomes aware of the debt free person’s inability to forgive another, a righteous rage is expressed and the massive debt is restored.
I wonder if one of the primary purposes of the story is to instruct Peter, and all those who are listening, that the only way to learn to forgive is to come to the realization that you have been forgiven.
Once you come to understand that you are loved, forgiven, accepted, the idea of forgiving the schmuck who has offended you becomes more palatable. The failure of the man in the story was that he didn’t learn that forgiveness must beget forgiveness.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
The way we learn a life of forgiveness is to recognize that we are forgiven by a gracious and merciful God. Forgiveness, as understood in the gospel, is the simple act of reciprocation. God forgives us. Therefore, we gotta forgive others- 7 times or 77 times or 490 times or 4900 times- it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have been forgiven.
And as a forgiven one, you are both free and obligated to forgive others.