Let me read those first two verses of the Gospel again: ‘Then Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church 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.”’ Sinners? In church? Whatever next?
These verses come straight after the ones from last weeks’ Gospel. If you remember they were about what we should do within a congregation if you’ve tried everything and there’s still a dispute between 2 church members. Today’s verses act as a corrective to soften that apparent earlier harshness. Or they give a wider context of forgiveness, if you like, for how to view what came before.
And there’s good biblical precedent for that. Back in Leviticus the instruction to the Children of Israel was that it was right to kindly correct your neighbour for their failing, otherwise it was as if you’d done the misdeed yourself. But that’s immediately followed and balanced by the well-known verse that Jesus quotes about loving your neighbour as yourself (19:17-18).
And Peter probably thought he was already being overly generous in his opening offer. The rabbis at the time recommended that you forgive someone three times. Peter doubles it and adds another for luck to come up with seven. Jesus’ reply of seventy-seven times recalls a verse in Genesis (4:24) where a blood-feud had carried on for years without mercy or limit. Jesus is flipping it and saying that amongst Christians there should be no limit to mercy and forgiveness.
All the advantages
In thinking about this passage, the author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that Christianity is a religion in which the sinner has all the advantages. They can step on your toes as many times as they like, and you’re supposed to keep on smiling. They can talk behind your back and it’s your job to excuse them without any thought of getting even. The responsibility is on you, because God has forgiven you and God expects you to do unto others as God has done unto you.
Because if God is willing to stick with us despite how we behave, then who are we to hold those same things against someone else? Frankly though, we all find it easier to dwell on someone else’s shortcomings rather than on our own.
Not forgiving is often a sign of being angry. And being angry often happens when you’re being threatened in some way, when something precious to you is in danger. Staying angry is a protection. Me staying angry and refusing to forgive keeps you at a distance so you can’t get close enough to hurt me again. The trouble is that there’s a side-effect. It’s a condition called bitterness – and it can do terrible things to us. It can twist and distort us out of shape.
I chose to
I mentioned in a sermon up at Christ Church recently a novel called ‘The Light Between Oceans.’ One of the characters is an Austrian man, called Frank, who was living in Australia at the outbreak of the First World War and was interned there since everyone thought of him as German. But he continues to suffer prejudice and abuse long after the war is over.
At one point his Australian wife, Hannah, asks him how he can forgive those who are giving him such an awful time. “I chose to,” he said. “I can leave myself to rot in the past, spend time hating people for what happened, or I can forgive and forget.”
“But it’s not that easy” his wife replies.
“Oh, but…it is so much less exhausting,” Frank says. “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things…. I would have to make a list, a very, very long list and make sure I hated the people on it the right amount… No, we always have a choice. All of us.”
Usually, we can learn something from our anger, particularly if we have our own part to play in the situation. If it teaches us something, then that makes it easier to move on and let it go. It’s when our anger goes on and we don’t learn anything or change anything. That’s when it becomes bitterness and resentment.
So, we not only owe it to God, we owe it to ourselves to forgive and move forward. Because otherwise the resentment bends us out of shape. Unforgiveness hurts us as much, if not more, than the other person. We become victims of our own ill-will.
But as Barbara Brown Taylor continues, allowing your enemy to stop being your enemy is scary. You’re trading-in your pride and power on the off-chance that the alternative is better. But you have to for the chance to live again, to move from bitterness to sweetness.
Each one of us is being forgiven by our heavenly Father every day of our lives. Not seven times or seventy seven or even seventy times seven but countless times during our lifetimes. We are continually being set free by someone who knows that we need all the practice that we can get when it comes to forgiveness.
In his parting sermon as Chief Rabbi, the late Jonathan Sacks made the point that the first time that the word for divine forgiveness appears in the Bible is after the incident with the Golden Calf in Exodus. Moses prays to God for forgiveness. Rabbi Sacks asks the question: why doesn’t God’s forgiveness appear in all the years, in all the words, before that? It’s nowhere in Genesis. When you think of all that happens, divine forgiveness is not in the story of the flood, or the Tower of Babel or of Sodom and Gomorrah. Why would that be?
The answer, he says, is that Genesis is a book about conflict between brothers. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. And you have to focus on the last scene in each of those relationships.
As we forgive
In the last scene of Cain and Abel, Cain is a murderer and Abel lies dead. In Isaac and Ishmael, they are standing together united in grief at their father Abraham’s graveside. With Jacob and Esau, they kiss and embrace and go their separate ways. And in our OT reading today, with Joseph and his brothers, Joseph forgives them and there is reconciliation. He does it twice. First when he reveals his identity and again at the death of their father.
For Jonathan Sacks, at the moment that Joseph forgave his brothers, then the story of divine forgiveness could begin. Human beings had to learn to forgive one another first. God forgives us as we forgive one another.
If that seems an odd way round, then it’s a thought echoed in the prayer that Jesus taught us, which we say together every week: forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Live and forgive
At the exodus, the Israelite slaves were physically freed. With forgiveness, they were spiritually freed too. Without forgiveness they would always be prisoners of the past.
Like with Frank, in the story that I mentioned earlier, forgiveness can become a way of life. It’s God’s cure for the deformities that resentments can cause us. Every time we forgive, we become that little bit more alive, that little bit more free, that little bit closer to the shape that God always meant us to be.
As Bishop Mark of Middleton said at a confirmation service recently, we should live and forgive. Live and forgive. Amen
‘Forgiveness 2: Seventy seven’ was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark, Bury. It was based on Matthew 18:21-35
- Brown Taylor, B. (1995). Gospel Medicine. Cowley.
- Stedman, M.L. (2012). The Light Between Oceans. Black Swan.
- Davies, W.D. & Allison, D.C. (1991). T&T Clark.