Growing up my mother, Diane, spent a large part of her career as a Child Care provider looking after around 5 children ages birth through Kindergarten at a time. When one of the kids would repeatedly break a rule and then say “Sorry” mom had a ready response. “Sorry didn’t do it, you did.” Hearing those words felt harsh at times, especially when they were directed toward myself, but looking back she had a point. Forgiveness is a whole lot more complicated than a simple “I’m sorry.” Especially, when there aren’t actions to back the apology up.
Our gospel reading this morning picks up immediately after Jesus’ lesson on conflict resolution that we heard last week. Peter follows up by asking Jesus just how many times someone should be forgiven. He’s seeking out a specific limit and proposes 7 times, certainly a generous number. But Jesus says no. “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Hold on…70 x 7? 490 times? What about the 491st?
Here’s a little math lesson and history of the significance of the numbers named in this scripture. In Jewish Talmudic literature the number 7 represents completeness. 70 = 7 x 10, completeness times the 10 Commandments that were handed down from God to the Israelites through Moses. Jesus’ teaching to his disciples 70 x 7 times to a Jewish hearer would indicate that we are to forgive until the work of sanctification is complete, which won’t happen until the World to Come is a reality.
Forgiveness is something that is really difficult to understand. If you try to look it up in a dictionary all you get is “the act of forgiving” so I clicked on the link for forgiving and the definition that came up was “indicating forgiveness.” Every English teacher I’ve ever had was shouting in my head that you never use the word in it’s own definition. If it’s so hard to find what forgiveness means, it becomes important to take a closer look at just what it is that Jesus is asking us to do.
Forgiveness is not an end point where healing of a wrong done is complete. For example, if I forgive an abuser or oppressor, I can still be triggered by scents, locations, visual cues et cetera that take me back into that mental and emotional space. Abundant forgiveness does not mean that a repeatedly harmful or abusive relationship should be preserved, whether the person is forgiven or not. It’s not about the person or entity who harmed the other, but instead about that person letting go of the hurt that has been caused in order to work toward liberation from it. It takes time and no one get to dictate how much time that it will take or what emotions are felt in the process. After all, Jesus too raged against oppression many times throughout his life.
Forgiveness is a non-linear process. It’s a place of beginning at the absolute start of that process is the admission of wrongdoing, of taking responsibility to recognize and name the extent of the brokenness that has occurred. It’s why at the very beginning of worship we have a time of Confession, where we name the ways in which we sin in thought, word, and deed. And only after we confess are we able to then be forgiven and restored to right relationship with God.
Jesus teaches that human forgiveness doesn’t just require the admission of wrongdoing, however, but work to actively change, otherwise the admission just becomes performative, holding very little substance. Whether we like it or not, the wider church has been the source of harm especially to various minority populations. And so it is important for smaller communities of faith within the global church to name that the hurt exists and to take an active role in changing the systemic problem, even when they may feel they’re not personally responsible. We can all take an active role in making the wider church a more welcoming place.
In her blog Journey with Jesus, theologian Debie Thomas writes “Forgiveness is the beginning of the hard work of building God’s kingdom, not an end…and it’s a practice enacted one layered, complicated, and unsentimental moment at a time.” Forgiveness takes practice, just like learning how to play an instrument, playing a sport, or learning a new language. The muscle needs to be built up, and one way to do that is to start with the easiest person to forgive and working your way up over time.
Forgiveness and love are intricately connected, as Theologian Henry Nouwen describes it
“Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly, and so we need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. Forgiveness is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”-Henry Nouwen
Forgiveness is choosing to put love at the center instead of resentment, which is capable of poisoning us from the inside out. I’m not talking about the sickly sweet, perfect kind of love sold to us in Hallmark cards, but the realistic, messy, flawed kind of love that takes hard work and dedication every single day to keep doing.
We are a flawed people forgiven by a God whose immeasurable grace knows no bounds, and so it is our responsibility and our privilege to continue to do the hard work of forgiveness
“for the sake of a broken and desperate world…May we always pay forward the healing grace and forgiveness of God until Justice reigns.”Debie Thomas
The work is hard, it takes time, and when we sin we need to take responsibility for the harm we cause. But the hope lies in a God who exemplifies that love and forgiveness and is present with us until the end of the age.