Our series Questions People Asked Jesus continues Sunday in the Chapel at 9:40 and the Sanctuary at 11:00 with a question from Simon Peter. He has been traveling around with Jesus and the other disciples for a long time and has heard him talk about forgiving your enemies, loving your enemies, and praying for those who persecute you. He has seen a man paralyzed get up and walk when Jesus said, “Take heart, son; Your sins are forgiven.” Peter has probably been wrestling with some need to forgive in his own life. He knows the power of forgiveness, he knows he is supposed to forgive, and he knows the corrosive effect of holding a grudge. But, surely there’s a limit — right? You can’t just forgive and forgive and forgive without limit, can you? There has to be a limit!” So, he asks Jesus this question: “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Seven times. That is a lot!
Jesus’ answer must have dismayed and shocked Peter, who probably thought he was going way beyond the norm with his suggestion of as many as seven times: “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.” Some translations say, “seventy times seven.” The meaning could not be clearer: there is to be no limit to our forgiveness. This is a tough one, isn’t it?
In conversations with people throughout the years and as I look into my own heart and mind in relation to forgiveness, I have come to realize that that forgiveness is NOT forgetting. It is NOT accepting or justifying the offense. It is NOT pardoning, excusing, or condoning. It may not mean understanding the offense or the offender. It may not even mean reconciling.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying, “Oh, that’s okay, it doesn’t matter.” Because it does matter. Whatever the wrong is, it matters! Or, forgiveness wouldn’t be necessary.
Forgiveness is not simply looking the other way pretending it didn’t happen, because it happened. A wrong was committed. There is something there that needs forgiveness.
Forgiveness does not always mean that we have to have an apology before we can forgive — although it make forgiveness that much more challenging.
Forgiveness, seventy times seven, does not mean that I submit myself or you submit yourself to abuse of any kind because submitting to abuse is NOT forgiveness.
For me, the most helpful definition of forgiveness is this: Forgiveness is the difficult and intentional process of letting go of an old reality and opening up the possibility of a new one. It is difficult and intentional and vitally important work. Because to hold on to anger — to hold a grudge — is destructive. Frederick Beuchner’s memorable way of expressing the importance of letting go bears repeating:
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”
I look forward to seeing you Sunday.
Grace and Peace,