Peter asks, Lord, if someone 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.
A man once asked his wife how come she kept talking about his past mistakes:
I thought you said you had forgiven and forgotten, the man said.
To which his wife responded:
I have forgiven and forgotten. . . but I want to make sure that you don’t forget that I have forgiven and forgotten.
Forgiveness certainly is a complicated subject.
Some say that our Gospel this week is dealing with what they call surface forgiveness. This is a kind of forgiveness that is only needed for smaller transgressions, a forgiveness for the kind of sins that don’t leave behind large, open wounds. Surface forgiveness, they say, is a good start, and a deeper forgiveness could possibly come later.
Many others agree with Jesus that we should forgive seventy-seven times, but only if the offender has completely repented of their sin. These well-meaning people claim that forgiveness is impossible unless there is first repentance on the part of the offender.
There are others who hold that no matter what this Gospel might be suggesting. . . there are in life some sins, because of their shear size alone, which cannot be forgiven except by God, and surely not by us.
I can imagine a few really BIG sins out there that I couldn’t possibly forgive. . . Can’t you?
I wonder if you noticed that all three of these theories on forgiveness are basically three different ways of asking the same question that Peter asked Jesus in this week’s Gospel:
How many times must I forgive; how much should I forgive; aren’t there any conditions or limitations of any kind? You see, all of us stand with Peter this morning. Forgiveness really is difficult.
I remember once in an adult Bible Study someone made the comment:Forgiveness is the easy way out. I think this person was trying to indicate that making people pay for their sins is a more righteous approach. I thought about that for a minute, and then my response was, If forgiveness is so easy, then why is it so rare?
Some years ago, one of the television news organizations ran a story about Chris Carrier. Maybe you remember it?
Little Chris was kidnapped at age 6, and when he was found, it was discovered that he had been burned with cigarettes, stabbed with an ice pick, shot in the head and left for dead, but he recovered. He was blind in one eye, but he recovered.
Twenty-two years after the kidnapping, David MacAllester, who was dying in a nursing home, confessed to the crime against Chris Carrier. Chris went to visit David MacAllester every remaining day of the dying man’s life in that nursing home. Chris prayed with and for David, read the Bible with him and did everything he could to help David make peace with God in his time remaining in this life.
Chris commented, I became a Christian when I was 13. That night was the first night I was able to sleep through the night without waking up from my nightmares. I want David to know the same peace.
Kind of hurts doesn’t it? On the one hand it feels like Chris Carrier might have gone too far. On the other hand, maybe it’s just another case of a preacher using fancy words to tell me to forgive that someone who has hurt me beyond my ability to forgive.
Maybe it’s a little bit of both. What is it about forgiveness that makes it so difficult that we want, NEED, to place all kinds of conditions and stipulations upon it?
I have a theory that Forgiveness is very much like trying to break an addiction! It’s like the pastor who quit the ministry to go to medical school. When someone asked him why, he said, Folks don’t want spiritual health; they just want to feel good. After practicing medicine for a couple of years, he quit to go to law school. When someone againasked him why, he said, In the end folks just want to get even…. that’s what makes them FEEL GOOD.
Can we admit that sometimes it just really feels good to lick our wounds and to smack our lips over grievances long past; to roll our tongues over the prospect of bitter confrontations yet to come; to savor to the last tasty morsel the pain we are given and the pain we are giving back? In many ways it’s a feast fit for a king isn’t it?
There’s only one drawback, and that is: in this feast what we are devouring, really, is OURSELVES!
We become the carcass on the table.
Now I’ve put it in pretty dark and dirty terms here, but I think we have to admit these things before we can be free to forgive. If you still think that it’s possible that Jesus would agree to some limitations on forgiveness, then don’t listen to me, just go back to the Gospel.
Peter asks if seven times would be enough, and Jesus says no, Seventy-seven, or in one variation, seventy times seven. It doesn’t really matter, because the number seven (and its multiples) for Jesus and his followers in the first century represented perfection and infinity.
It was as though Jesus was saying, Peter, how can you even ask such a question? YOU MUST FORGIVE INFINITELY AND PERFECTLY!
And if that’s not enough, then stand at the foot of the cross. Stand right there under the bleeding, tortured, broken and pierced body of Jesus and look up at him, and listen as he says, Father, Forgive them.
Stand there and try to ask, How big must a sin be before I don’t have to forgive it? Suddenly it becomes an impertinent question doesn’t it?
Somewhere in the Gospel it says, We love because God first loved us.You know, I think that’s true about forgiveness also. We should forgive because God first forgave us. Aren’t we lucky that God doesn’t ask, how big should a sin be before I don’t have to forgive it?
The parable Jesus told in our Gospel makes the point that we are to forgive as God forgives. Nothing less is expected of the Christian. It says in that same Gospel that the king forgave the servant ten thousand talents. I’m not sure how many realize it, but 10,000 talents is an outrageous figure.
To put it in perspective, one talent represented 15 years of wages for the laborer. King Herod never accumulated more than 900 talents from all the taxes he collected. and this slave is forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents, an incredible amount.
The slave who was forgiven this huge debt couldn’t forgive a fellow slave a debt of a hundred denari; that’s the amount of money it would take to buy a medium pizza and a liter of coke today.
And what happened to him? He was thrown into prison. Which prison? The prison of unremitting regret. The prison of relentless guilt. I’ve been in those prisons. IT’S NOT WORTH IT!
I passed a really beautiful church and on the church sign it said:
FORGIVENESS. . . IT DOES A BODY GOOD.
The fact is, If you want to remain in a community of caring, loving, and supporting people, there will never be a time when you can say with regard to forgiveness, ENOUGH!
When you forgive someone it is you, the forgiver, who is immediately healed. It does a body good.
Please note that I know it’s not going to be easy. But just because it’s hard, doesn’t really give any of us the right to redefine the terms.
Jesus said it, not me: NOT SEVEN….. BUT SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN!!!
It will be difficult to forgive without condition. We will fail at it from time to time. Of course Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness is radical and reckless, and seems so unfair at times. So what else is new? Welcome to the Kingdom of God!