CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: 9/11 + 7x70: A Formula for Forgiveness
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?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
- Matthew 18:21-35
Reflecting 20 years after the atrocities of 9/11, the pain remains—intense for those closest to the victims, a dull ache for those of us further removed. Jesus reaches out from this gospel to take our pain, if not with a quick cure, then surely with a sound road to recovery.
Forgiveness is the essence of Christian love. It is not restricted to overlooking petty faux pas or even gross insults. Forgiveness is the transcendent courage to absorb a despicable blow without being consumed by a blood lust for revenge. Forgiveness is the refusal to allow these blows to enter our souls, where they have room to grow and fester. Forgiveness is not a largesse we dispense by the power of our innate superiority. It is the grace of God transmitted through us. It is the ultimate witness of Christ’s love in the world.
But don’t be confused. Forgiveness is not a get out of jail free card for perpetrators. God has not issued an easy pass for evil in the world. Civil justice should be tempered by Christian love, not eliminated by it. We are the principal beneficiaries of our forgiveness, both in this world and the next.
We can choose to spend our lives obsessed with settling scores: with terrorists, with mall and school shooters, with noisy neighbors, with line jumpers, with the wise guy in the next lane—even within our own families. Life presents us with infinite opportunities to get even or to forgive seven times seventy. The choice is ours. We can live in love, or we can live in hate. Both are transformative forces. We can become what we value and love, or we can risk becoming the evil we obsess upon. I know from painful personal experience: Love is better.
But there is a price to pay for choosing love: “A soft touch.” “A mark.” “A pushover.” “A patsy.” The world has lots of nasty names for people who lead with their hearts. We call them Christians. And every day our Christianity is put to the test as we engage in the important work of building beloved community.
A contractor demands you pay top dollar and then does a lousy job. A brother-in-law borrows 500 bucks. That was three months ago, and he doesn’t return your calls anymore. A coworker lets you down, and you take the blame. Sound familiar? We all have these tales of woe. What sets us apart is how we deal with life’s nicks and dents—and especially its calamities.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean you walk through life with a “kick me” sign on your back. It doesn’t mean you pop up smiling in the face of evil. It doesn’t mean you suspend reason and invite abuse. It does mean you actively live in Christ. You read and follow God’s word every day. God guides us in all things, particularly over the roughest patches, the hurts that are hardest to forgive.
In this particular gospel, Peter comes to Christ looking for some practical advice. What’s the rule of thumb for forgiveness? Peter had obviously given the subject some thought and had a suggestion. The rabbinical scholars of the day had given the matter even greater thought in their effort to provide precise benchmarks for every aspect of behavior. They came up with a three strikes and you’re out rule for forgiveness. Peter doubled down on that and added one for good measure. Lord, was seven the magic number? Christ’s answer shreds this whole accounting approach to love.
In biblical terms Christ’s reply, seven times seventy, was the numerical equivalent of infinity. In other words, stop counting and start loving. That is the way God views our entire lifetimes of sins and slights. God’s mercy is infinite: “There is a wideness to God’s mercy…”
To reinforce his point, Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant who was forgiven a staggering, unpayable debt and then refused forgiveness to a fellow servant. His sorry fate awaits all of us who will not forgive from our heart.
But don’t kid yourself—you can’t fake forgiveness. It is a hard road. Our primal instincts reject it. Humans got to the top of the food chain by being the world’s champion predators. Get in our way, and we’ll have you for dinner. And that goes double for our fellow humans. It takes a lot less than survival for our killer instincts to kick in. A different race, a different faith, a different opinion, a slight, a misunderstanding, a bruised ego—all have proven ample grounds for endless bloodletting.
And then along comes Jesus. He stands against an avalanche of revenge and cries: “Enough!” Enough of the cycle of violence. Enough of the chaos we’ve made of Creation. Enough of the moral monsters God’s children have become. The God who made every atom of our being, knows how those atoms work—God knows forgiveness is not built into our DNA.
We have to work on it. We have to pray on it. We have to commit to forgiveness, even when our instincts scream: “No way!” True forgiveness is a long, painful process, not a shake and bake solution. It requires moral muscles built by the rigorous exercise of sharing Christ’s love. Before forgiveness heals, it almost always hurts. But we have no other useful options. As Martin Luther King stated, “Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness.... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.”
We are not being advised to forgive by our therapist. We are being commanded to forgive by our Lord and Savior, who went to the cross for your forgiveness and mine. And lest there be any room for confusion, our loving, forgiving God puts it plainly: Our ability to receive the forgiveness that God offers us, from before time and beyond time, is directly connected to our choice to forgive—or not to forgive. Unless each of you forgives from your heart. This is the essential solution for transforming anger and hate: Forgive and be forgiven. It is God’s formula for forgiveness.
The Rev. Canon David Sellery is the canon for congregational mission in the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus