A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost, Preacher at All Saints’ Anglican Church, King City, ON, Diocese of Toronto. Readings for this Sunday: Exodus 14.19-31, Psalm 103:8-13, Romans 14.1-12, Matthew 18.21-35.
21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,-. (Matthew 18.21-22)
Forgiveness is a social skill. If we lived entirely solitary lives as desert hermits we wouldn’t have much call to forgive or to ask forgiveness, but we are social creatures. We start our lives in families, we go to school, we join workplaces, all because we are social beings, designed to live in communities. When we break up some squabble between children or grandchildren, our intervention usually includes the words “Say you’re sorry” because we have to teach the young that living in community entails the responsibility to ask and to give forgiveness.
Teaching forgiveness in the young is an investment in our future, because otherwise the alternatives to forgiveness – conflict, grudge keeping, and vengeance – poison our families, poison our workplaces, poison our politics and our communities, and threaten the very possibility of life together. Forgiveness is future oriented – it enables us to hope, to reconcile, and to pursue a better future.
Without forgiveness we can become mired in the past – stuck in the memory of wrongs and abuses, trapped in cycles of anger and bad behaviour, even risking our mental and physical health by trying to survive in broken communities. Forgiveness requires that we set aside the past, that we make what peace we can with the memories of the wrongs committed against us, in order that the past does not control our future. Forgiveness is difficult, costly work, especially when we have been badly wronged. Few of us, left to our own devices, have much appetite for this work.
Notice that Peter asks Jesus “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” That question is vital, because without forgiveness, there is no church. I said earlier that humans are social creatures, and as Christians, we say this theologically. We believe that we are social because we humans are specifically created for life together as God’s people, as church.
Without forgiveness, there is no church, no community. Church is about the future, about God’s calling us to be new creations, to be transformed by the love of Christ, to bear good fruit. Without forgiveness we are stuck in our histories, unable to answer God’s call to move forward. The centrality of forgiveness to being church is why Jesus builds forgiveness into the Lord’s Prayer and why he teaches that prayer during the Sermon on the Mount: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you” (Mt 6.14-15).
Without forgiveness, there is no church, because in church, as in our family and work lives, forgiveness is an ongoing process. One of the problems of being social beings is that we have sharp elbows. In a myriad of ways, we regularly bump into each other, give offence, hurt each other. That’s a part of our human condition. It’s true of husbands and wives, parents and children, even churchgoers and priests. Our relationships require continuous repair, healing, and reconciliation. Without forgiveness, our relationships suffer and eventually fail.
How hard should we work at forgiveness? Is there an upper limit, as Peter seems to ask Jesus? Do we stop after the eighth offence against us? At the heart of Peter’s question is an idea of accountability, that there might be a limit to our ability to forgive depending on the scale of the offence, or the persistence of the offender. Should a spouse continue to forgive a serial adulterer? How often do we forgive a loved one with an addiction who refuses to seek treatment and whose actions are destructive?
Jesus’ answer to Peter, that we should forgive “seventy-seven’ times, seems to defy human capacity. How do we even measure that? What does that sort of forgiveness look like? In the context of the parable that follows, that sort of forgiveness seems to be illustrated by the king forgiving his servant of “ten thousand talents” (18.24), an impossibly large sum in biblical times. Given that the parable is designed to say something about how the kingdom of heaven works, we have to conclude that the king stands for God, and that God’s forgiveness is extravagant and excessive, which is a good thing for us, given that, as we’ve noted, we humans have a talent for hurting one another.
The king in the parable is not interested in the servant’s ability to repay, or even how he racked up the debt in the first place. The king is only motivated by pity 18.27). Forgiving the debt is an act of pure grace. There is only the expectation of accountability, that the servant will forgive others in his own limited way, which brings us back to Jesus’ words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, “if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”.
But let us not think that we can forgive as the King forgives us. Our forgiveness at best will be a paltry thing, a mere handful of coins and wads of bills against the inexhaustible sums of grace in the King’s coffers, because the King’s forgiveness is love itself, poured out for all. Jesus is the source of all true forgiveness. As the Orthodox priest Stephen Freeman writes, “forgiveness is of a piece with bearing the Cross itself. It is of paramount importance that the one act of general forgiveness offered by Christ is found in words spoken from the Cross. They could have been spoken from nowhere else” .
It may well be than that Jesus words, “seven times seventy”, do not indicate the extravagance of our forgiveness, poured out all at once in one self-emptying act, so much as they indicate the duration of our forgiveness, which must be a continual action, part of our lives as disciples. This may be especially true for those of us who have suffered great wrongs and betrayals from others, and whose scars are deep. We may be called to forgive a wrong against us every day for seventy-seven days, or months, or years.
The forgiveness that Jesus calls us to is then a daily discipline, something that we can perform briefly in a heartfelt saying of the Lord’s Prayer, or in a deeper way, focusing on particular people that we need to forgive. Inspired by the great love spoken from the cross, we can say each day as we rise, “Help me, Christ, this day to forgive others as best I can, in imitation of you, who have forgiven me so much”.