The apostle Peter tries hard, but he is so uncool! Rough, spontaneous and impulsive, so often he gets things wrong. When he does well he REALLY does well. But when he fails, he REALLY fails! He opens his mouth before putting his brain into gear. He does it in today’s Gospel and his remark is the occasion for one of the most powerful teachings of Jesus.
There were Rabbis at the time teaching that we have to forgive someone three times for the same offence. They based this on Amos 1:3-13 & 2:1-6, saying that because God forgives the sinner three times and then punishes the fourth offence, and we cannot possibly be more generous than God, we ought not forgive someone more than three times.
So St Peter probably thought he was being extremely generous – and maybe even daring – when he suggested forgiving someone seven times!
I’m sure he was deeply shocked by the response of Jesus: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Of course, Jesus didn’t mean exactly 490 times! “Seventy times seven” is a colourful way of saying “always.”
(I actually think that there are very few people most of us would be willing to forgive even “seven times” for the same serious offence!)
Jesus proceeded to tell a story which contrasts a calculating approach to forgiveness with the infinite love and mercy of God. It also emphasises that nothing others do to us can ever compare with what we have done to God. The message is that if God can forgive us when we wrong him, then the least we can do is forgive others when they wrong us. Jesus doesn’t fool around on this one. He makes it crystal clear that we ought not seek God’s forgiveness, if we are not prepared to forgive others.
He had already said that when we pray we should say: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” (Matthew 6:12)
He had said that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against any one; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses." (Mark 11:25)
And in the context of the church community, St Paul wrote: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:31-32)
Resentment, hatred, and bitterness are like bad cholesterol building up in our system and destroying (1) our ability to live with ourselves, (2) our ability to share with others in community, and (3) our intimacy with God.
That’s why Jesus places such a high priority on our willingness to forgive, tying us down to expecting no more forgiveness from the Father than what we are prepared to give to those who have hurt us.
That seems so tough. It’s a really hard teaching. How can we possibly forgive like that? What about those who have been hurt so deeply that the emotional and psychological wounds are still festering many years later? And, what about those who have been abused in one way or another? Isn’t it further abuse to tell them that they, too, need to hear this teaching of the Lord and learn to forgive, like the rest of us?
Well, no-one’s suggesting it is easy. No-one’s saying that it’s not a real struggle. No-one’s telling us that we can do it in our own strength. But it IS part of our healing. And, like every other area of healing, while there are miracles of instant transformation for which we praise the Lord, most of the time the change in us takes place gradually as we become more and more open to the healing love that is being poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5).
Provided, of course, that we actually set out on the journey of forgiveness. To do so is important NOT even so much for the sake of the person we are trying to forgive, but FOR OUR OWN SAKE. That is true whether we are coldly withholding forgiveness in order to punish someone for what they have done, or if we would genuinely like to forgive “but just can’t.” In What’s So Amazing About Grace?, Philip Yancey says:
“We forgive not merely to fulfil some higher law of morality,
we do it for ourselves.
The first and often the only person to be healed by forgiveness
is the one who does the forgiving . . .
When we genuinely forgive
we set a prisoner free
and then discover that the prisoner was us.”
Yancey hits the nail on the head! What he says is the reason why the journey to forgiveness of someone who has hurt us deeply is worth the agony, the struggle and the challenge. Indeed, in their wonderful book, The Transformation of the Inner Man, John and Paula Sandford make the point that
“Prayer for inner healing always involves at root a decision to forgive.”
This is really important. Forgiveness is not just an act of love; it is an act of the will. WE have to make a start, and that start is DECIDING to forgive because it is a command of the Lord, even if we don’t feel like it. Sometimes this is easier than at other times. Sometimes the best we can do is to pray with all sincerity, “Lord, I don’t want to forgive N., but I “want to want to” forgive him/her.”
Then, following the Lord’s teaching that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44), we should remember that person by name daily in our prayers, asking for the Lord to pour out his love and blessing on them. That can be so difficult as well. But we do find ourselves being healed, little by little, and sometimes there is a wonderful result (that we mightn’t even know about) in the life of the other person.
But I can tell you from my own experience, it’s a real struggle. It’s the hardest thing in the world. It can be a long journey. But it’s worth it, as Yancey said, FOR OUR OWN SAKE!
I should add that to forgive is not necessarily to forget completely. Most of us cannot forget what we have suffered. In fact, sometimes we shouldn’t forget! But through the miracle of forgiveness, the open wound of a past hurt becomes a kind of scar which ceases to trigger off a re-living of the pain and trauma, but is, in fact, an outward sign of the healing that has happened. In its own way, it is a testimony of God’s healing love.
And, though we have forgiven them, it is – obviously - not wrong to be careful and circumspect in dealing with those who continue to cause hurt and injury.
Furthermore, it needs to be said that while we forgive as Jesus told us to, the gradual re-establishment of trust (if it is to take place) is very much the responsibility of the one who caused the pain in the first place.
I want to finish today with a news article from the Sydney Morning Herald, 29th December, 2008, a truly breathtaking example of ordinary Christian people embodying – by the grace of God – what I have tried to share with you:
The family of a teenager stabbed to death at a Sydney railway station have gathered for the much-loved youth's funeral, saying they forgive his killer.
Andrew Motuliki, 17, was stabbed in the chest with a large fishing knife allegedly after a fight broke out between two groups of teenagers on a train at Campsie station, in Sydney's south-west, on December 21.
Passengers on the train tried to give the Marrickville teenager first aid but he was pronounced dead on arrival at St George Hospital.
A 16-year-old boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, has been charged with his murder, as well as affray and custody of a knife in a public place.
He was refused bail in Parramatta Children's Court the day after the stabbing death.
"This boy who did this to my son, I forgive you," Andrew's father Etikailahi Motuliki told the Ten Network.
"Pray to God, pray for forgiveness."
His mother, Ane Motuliki, echoed the words of forgiveness, happy for the murder-accused to be dealt with by the courts, saying: "(I) leave up to whoever (to) deal with him".
Shortly after the killing, the Motulikis made a tearful public plea for people not to carry knives.
"I would like to appeal to kids everywhere not to carry knives," Mr Motuliki said the day after his son's death.
"They need to find out another way to solve their problems."
Following Monday's funeral, family and friends gathered at the scene of the stabbing, singing and praying for Andrew who was killed on his way to church just days before Christmas.