Up to that point, I’d been carrying around so much anger and rage that my capacity to love had waned. Yet I knew only way for me to be free from that burden was to get it all go. Which meant, I had to forgive her. Just forgive.
Henri Nouwen wrote, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. And we all love poorly.”
If we want to follow Jesus, we have to truly love like he does. Which means we have to forgive like he did. That’s never as easy as it sounds.
As every great athlete knows, success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of practice and struggle to get to the top. We must remember that to be forgiving like Christ requires constant focus, and a willingness to do it over and over again until it becomes as natural to us as breathing. I think this is exactly what Jesus is encouraging in our reading today from Matthew 18.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if my brother or sister 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. Matthew 18:21-22.
In our world, to forgive a person once is an acceptable gesture. But to forgive someone repeatedly is often frown upon and thought of as irresponsible or even self-harming.
Using the Rabbinic scales of mercy, which requires a person to forgive another four times, Peter pushed this notion further - suggesting seven times. Maybe he was trying to impress Jesus or show the other disciples how much better he was than the rabbis.
But Jesus isn’t having any of that. He seems to be saying err on the side of caution and forgive a person seventy-seven times.
New Testament scholars will debate whether the Greek should be translated as “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” Either way, it’s an enormous number; one so big that we can’t begin to calculate it.I suspect that’s the point.
Jesus is reminding us that forgiveness isn’t absolute like math. There is no perfect set amount because each act of forgiveness has its own set of problems and calculations.
In fact, the only specification for forgiveness is to make the deliberate decision to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution towards any person you believe has wronged you. Again, sounds easier than it is. And yet, it’s not impossible.
You might remember that in 2006, a Pennsylvania man shot up an Amish schoolroom, killing five schoolgirls and wounding 11 others. This kind of stuff seems ordinary these days. But what should be ordinary is the way the Amish community reacted to this senseless act of violence.
While they were mourning their own children, the parents of the victims not only forgave the shooter, but also went to his house to comfort his mother because she too had lost her child that day.
We saw something similar when another young man walked into a historic black church in South Carolina and murdered nine people who had welcomed him into their bible study. At his bond hearing, five survivors faced the killer and forgave him.
And then there’s the story of the Korean pastor Yang-Won Sohn. After his two teenage boys were murdered because of their Christian faith, Yang-Won chose to follow Christ instead of the anger in his heart. Not only did he forgive the murderer, but he arranged his release from prison and adopted him as his own son.
You might be thinking “I couldn’t do that. I know I’m supposed to forgive but there must be a limit, right?”
According to Jesus, the only limit is to forgive as many times as it takes to love that person again.
Jesus is not telling us to condone bad behavior or continue in an unhealthy relationship. He says, just forgive them as much as God forgives you.
In the following verses he gives this parable to make his point.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him, and, as he could not pay, the lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Matthew 18:23-35
I always like to remind people that Jesus uses parables to talk about the kingdom of heaven. Which means it’s more about God, and less about us. Here we have a servant who owes his boss ten thousand talents. I’m told a single talent is equivalent to 15 years’ worth of wages. Do the math. Take all the money you’ve earned over the last 15 years and multiply it by 10,000.
Again, Jesus uses another ridiculous number because it’s not about the amount. It’s about our willingness to do what God asks of us each and every time. It’s not the counting but the giving of our heart that makes the kingdom of heaven come alive.
This kingdom runs on God’s economy, not ours. God is the bookkeeper. And God doesn’t look at numbers, God looks at the heart. Scripture reminds us that God loves a penitent and contrite heart. More importantly, God loves you more than any offense you may have done. When we seek forgiveness from God, we are given forgiveness from God.
This is what’s called grace. The grace that is offered by God through Christ, is given free of charge to anyone who wants it. It’s free because it’s impossible to repay. And since God’s grace is impossible to pay back…Jesus tells us to pay it forward.
In the parable, the servant is shown mercy, but he himself refuses to be merciful. And in the end, Jesus said he will get what he gives.
Jesus takes the business of forgiveness very seriously. And so must we. To quote C.S. Lewis “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
You may not have murdered innocent school children, but as Paul writes, “there is no distinction. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). And yet, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Maybe there is someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe you have a friend who hurt you with something he said or did that has made you angry.
Maybe someone close to you has wounded you so dearly that the very idea of facing her, muchless offering forgiveness, sickens you.
Maybe it wasn’t one big thing that someone did, but hundreds of tiny annoying things that have been building up like a cancerous wall inside you.
Maybe the person who needs forgiving is you. Maybe you did something that hurt another and you’ve been holding on that shame and guilt, and it’s eating you up inside.
In my experience, personal forgiveness is the hardest. Which might explain why Jesus wants us to do it a ridiculous amount of times because there’s a good chance you’re not going to get it right the first time.
The more we forgive the more it becomes a part of who we are. It becomes our go-to action instead of reacting in ways that continue the cycle of violence, hatred and bigotry.
As I sat in my car in the parking lot thinking about all the pain and suffering that person put me through, the loss of a good job, a nice salary, and of my fragile faith I had to make a choice. Hold on to the anger or let it go.
In that moment I prayed, not for my forgiveness, but for God to forgive her. And in that prayer I added, “because God, I have forgiven her.”
We can’t control what people do to us. We can only control how we respond.
Jesus taught us to forgive one another as God has forgiven you. It’s the same equation used for love - Love one another as God loves you.
This math applies to everything we do. As it’s written, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” At Anamesa we take that to mean love God, love others, and serve both.
So, if we choose to follow the Way of Jesus, through whom God has shown us the ultimate image of love and forgiveness, than we must be willing to do the same for one another, no matter how many times it requires.
To not forgive, be it once or seventy-seven times, is to deny the power of Christ who, on his cross, took our sins upon himself to reconcile us back to God.
We might think it’s just forgiveness. But it’s an action and power we possess that has eternal consequences.
As we leave here today, let us not forget that it’s in our own forgiveness we meet the glory of God.
And so it is also in our forgiving one another that God’s glory moves through us so that everyone gets a foretaste of what is to come, on earth as it is in heaven.
Excerpts from an original sermonI Am Forgiveness. September 13, 2020 (accessed on September 14, 2023).
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 68-73.
Pagano, Joseph S. Forgiveness. September 7, 2020. (accessed September 14, 2023).
West, Cindi. Forgive Someone Seventy Times Seven. July 1, 2019. (accessed September 11, 2020).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”