Last week I read a quote from Henri Nouwen who said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. And we all love poorly.” Which is why we need forgiving in the first place.
If we want to love, truly love like Jesus did, then we will have to forgive those who have hurt and harmed us – whether it’s big or small – we have to make amends in order to truly live into the love from which we are created. When asked by his disciples Jesus said this about forgiveness. It’s found in the gospel of Matthew 18:21-22.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
That’s a lot isn’t it? I mean, seven times seems like enough to let someone off the hook...but seventy-seven times? Really? To borrow from George Bush this seems like “fuzzy math.” The numbers don’t add up. At least not like we want them to.
Now I’ve never been particularly good at math. But then again, I’m not particularly good at forgiveness. I understand the basics, but when I try to work it out in life, it does my head in. I’ve learned that’s not uncommon for most folks. Because we don’t take forgiveness to heart. It’s not our go to action when someone wrongs us.
Now, I picture Peter stretching out his arms and asking, “Lord, should I forgive people this much?” And Jesus shakes his head. You see, Jesus knew the ancient rabbinic tradition that says you should forgive the one who sinned against you as many as four times.
Leave it up to Peter to try to impress his teacher by one upping the other rabbis. And leave it up to Jesus to turn what we know upside down. He tells Peter, “Seven is good. But it’s better to forgive seventy-seven times.” I’m sure even back then that a little overkill.
New Testament scholars will debate whether the Greek text translates it as “seventy-seven times” or “seventy times seven times.” Either way, Jesus gives us an enormous number; one so big that we can’t begin to calculate it. I suspect that’s the point. Forgiveness isn’t absolute like math. There is no perfect set amount because each act of forgiveness has its own set of problems and calculations.
Peter wants a hard number. But Jesus just wants him to forgive more than he can imagine so much that it becomes second nature. Think about that. What emotional reactions are second nature to you? How fast are you to forgive someone for something we are all guilty of doing?
Now, what do we know about forgiveness, other than it’s so hard to do? We know it’s good for our health and wellbeing in that it frees us from carrying the burden of guilt, anger and resentment. Such actions rarely ever lead to anything good.
True forgiveness is a self-healing process that starts with you and gradually extends to everyone else. The bible tells us that when Jesus healed people, forgiveness was often attached to their healing. Divine, spiritual healing transforms us from the inside out.
We also know Jesus instructed us to pray for forgiveness like we do for our daily bread. It’s as if he wants us to always remind ourselves how important forgiveness is to nourish our souls. And so we are taught to pray, “Lord forgive my trespasses, as I forgive those who trespass against me.”
Here’s the problem with that prayer. We’re all in for God forgiving us. But heaven forbid we should extend the same grace to others; especially to those who have wounded us beyond repair. And yet Jesus said, you aren’t only to forgive them, but to do so with some ridiculous amount. It’s the only way we can truly heal from our brokenness.
You see, the number seventy signifies spiritual perfection. Like with any spiritual practice, the more we do it, the more it becomes habitual or a part of who we are; as natural as our own heartbeat. It’s no surprise that every major religion regards forgiveness as a vital emotional and spiritual practice.
But here’s the thing, Jesus doesn’t give us any specific guidelines other than you are to make the deliberate decision to let go of your feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution towards any person you believe has wronged you.
Take, for example, the story of Louis Zamperini, the subject of the best-selling book Unforgiven. Zamperini spent over two years in a Japanese POW camp during WWII being beaten and tortured in the most unforgivable ways. After spending decades trying to numb the pain with substance abuse and other means, Zamperini realized the only way to be truly free would be to forgive the man responsible for his pain. And that’s just what he did.
And then there’s the story of Dylann Roof. You might remember he’s the white supremacist who murdered nine black lives during a bible study inside an historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Two days after the horrific and very calculated murders, five family members went to his bond hearing and chose to offer Roof their forgiveness.
While the rage and anger was still boiling around them, these five deeply wounded people chose to follow Christ’s example. They knew it was the only way their families and community could heal from the pain that one man caused because of his racist beliefs. By forgiving him of this horror, they reclaimed their freedom from the chains of deep seeded hatred that had shackled them for far too long.
As research suggests, holding on to any kind of pain or resentment does nothing more than eat you up inside. Desmon Tutu likens the unforgiving heart to someone taking poison hoping for the other person to die. That doesn’t add up.
Let me ask you this, how often have you thought, “How many times do I let this person hurt me before I cut my losses and go?” One? Seven? Seventy times seven? Jesus pretty much said, “As long as it takes to love that person again.” Jesus isn’t telling us to condone the behavior or continue in an unhealthy relationship. He just says forgive them as much as it takes to love them.
In the following verses Jesus tells his disciples a parable, a story about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like. And again, the numbers don’t add up if only because the numbers can’t be added up.
The story is about a guy who owes the king ten thousand talents. Now, a single talent was more than 15 years’ worth of wages. Take all the money you’ve made in the last 15 years and multiply it by 10,000. It’s a ridiculous amount of money for anyone to borrow, just as it is to pay off when the debt is called in.
When the king threatens him, the man drops to his knees and begs for mercy. And the king, knowing the impossibility of repayment, forgives the man of his debt, every last cent. As a result the king sets the man free. What kind of king does that? A king who loves you no matter what.
We are in the process of refinancing our home. I can’t tell you how happy I’d be if the bank just decided to forgive our debt completely. But that isn’t going to happen. It doesn’t work that way in a capitalist economy. The money you owe will be paid one way or another.
But it’s different in God’s economy. There is no paying back, because it would be impossible to do so. It’s called grace. We don’t earn it any more than we can buy it. It’s given freely through Christ to anyone who wants it. Thus C.S. Lewis said, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
Maybe there is someone in your life that you need to forgive. Maybe you have a friend who hurt you with something she said or did that has made you angry.
Maybe someone close to you that has wounded you so dearly that the very idea of facing him, muchless offering forgiveness, sickens you.
Maybe it wasn’t one big thing that someone did, but hundreds of tiny annoying things that have been building up like a cancerous wall inside you.
Maybe the person who needs forgiving is you. Maybe you have cause harm or done something that is eating you up inside.
If so, I hope that you hear this. We are not perfect beings. Show yourself some grace. Free yourself from any guilt or shame or hurtful judgments that are keeping you from becoming your best self.
Lewis Smede said it best, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” It might take one time or seventy-seven times before you realize that in Christ, God has already forgiven you.
When you ask for it, you receive it. There are no catchers or conditions attached. There is no quid-pro-quo when it comes to receiving God’s grace. That’s how love works in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus simplifies the entire mathematical equation down to this – Forgive one another as God has forgiven you.
It’s the same equation for love. As in love one another as God loves you.
It’s the same fuzzy math that applies to everything in our lives. Heal one another, feed one another, care for each other, do to one another as God does for you.
And so, as you leave here today, I invite you to open your heart and receive the power of God’s grace. Then go out into the world to be the healer, the lover, the forgiver that Jesus made you to be.
The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ.
Which is why we need to practice it daily, until it becomes second nature. Like breathing - and like love. Amen.
Excerpts from an original sermon Immeasurable Forgiveness September 16, 2017.
Bartlett, David L. and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year A Vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011) pp. 68-73.
Pagano, Joseph S. Forgiveness. September 7, 2020. https://episcopalchurch.org/library/sermon/forgiveness-pentecost-15-september-13-2020 (accessed September 11, 2020).
West, Cindi. Forgive Someone Seventy Times Seven. July 1, 2019. https://devotableapp.com/daily-devotion-forgive-someone-seventy-times-seven/ (accessed September 11, 2020).
has been blogging under the name: Jesus not Jesús: Looking for Christ in the face of strangers. You can read his posts and browse his archives by clicking here.
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