Bill Hattendorf, Lay Preacher
May the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord Amen.
“How many times should I forgive, Lord? As many as seven times?” Peter asks how wide our forgiveness should be, how many times must we be slighted before we say “enough?” How long before our reservoir of grace can be exhausted? It’s a natural question. We know too well both the small and large ways that others can tread upon us, the way others can take advantage
of our generosity, the sting of consistent slights and affronts. At what point can we say, “Enough?”
Jewish tradition limited forgiveness to three times. Why did Peter suggest seven? Did he think “Oh let’s double it and add one to grow on?” I don’t think so.
We know back in the First Century, the # 7 indicated perfection. Seven is a holy number to Jewish people, symbolizing perfection or completion. It has overtones of infinity – (O) – as in the seven days of the week constitute an endless cycle – so Peter’s proposal may be even more generous that it seems at first blush.
Jesus answered Peter, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times – or depending on the translation – seventy times seven times.” Either way, we’re talking about a a big number times infinity. Yes, OK, think Buzz Lightyear and “To infinity and beyond!”
Today’s lesson follows the story in Matthew about the lost sheep. If a man has 100 sheep and loses one, won’t he leave the other 99 to go out and look until he finds that lost one? One thing these two lessons have in
common is a call to throw away the calculator when dealing with relationships.
Forgiveness, for Jesus, I think, is not a quantifiable event. It is a quality, a way of being, a way of living,
a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ.
If we are to follow Christ then it must become our
way as well. “Not seven times, but, 70 times infinity.”
Does that mean forgiving the drunk driver? Yes.
The cheating spouse? Yes. The abusive parent? Yes. The rapist? Yes. The bully? Yes.
The greedy corporation? Yes. The racist? Yes.
The terrorists of 9/11? Yes.
Some days it feels like we’re in a very difficult, maybe impossible, time and place, at a very uncomfortable
intersection. This past week was another anniversary
of the September 11th tragedies and we saw all those images again in glorious technocolor on our screens. (I knew four people who died that day, two in the towers, one in the Pentagon, and one on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.) For many of us every year the 9/11 anniversary coverage keeps those images so fresh in our minds that they live there for weeks on end.
Those memories, images, anger, fear, pain and losses
all intersect with today’s gospel, Jesus’s teaching on
forgiveness. Both are real. Both are true. And even
without 9/11, many of us remember the JFK assassination, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, the genocides in Bosnia, wars and torture in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Even in our own lives we can find broken promises,
hurt feelings, emotional wounds. We’ve all been hurt or victimized by another. Beneath all the pain, wounds, losses, and memories, lies the question of forgiveness.
Everyone in the room, I suspect, is in favor of forgiveness, at least in principle. C.S. Lewis, author of Narnia, and so many others, writes in his book Mere Christianity: “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive.” What do we do then? What do we do when there is something to forgive?
Some will strike back seeking revenge. Some will run away from life and relationships. Some will let the
darkness paralyze them. I don’t say that out of criticism or judgment. I’ve done them all. I know how hard
forgiveness can be. I certainly struggle with it.
Forgiveness, though, is the only way forward. That does not mean we forget, condone, or approve of what was done. It doesn’t mean we ignore or excuse cruelty or
injustice. It just means we are released from them. We let go of the thoughts and fantasies of revenge. We look to the future rather than the past. We try to see and love as God sees and loves. Forgiveness is a way in which we align our life with God’s life. I think that to withhold forgiveness is to put ourselves in the place of God, the ultimate judge to whom all are accountable.
God’s forgiveness and human forgiveness are very
related. That’s certainly apparent in today’s parable. The king forgives his slave an extraordinary amount. Ten thousand talents is 3000 years of work at the
ordinary daily wage. It seems there is no debt too large to be forgiven. This man was forgiven. Maybe that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. This slave, however, refused to forgive his fellow slave 100 denarii, about three months of work at the ordinary daily wage. Too often, perhaps, that’s what our world is like. Frequently, it is how we are. In that refusal the forgiven slave lost his own forgiveness.
None of today’s lesson is news to us. We know it well. We acknowledge it at least every Sunday. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The words are familiar and easy, but do we live our prayer? Do our actions support our request?
So how do we begin to forgive? There is no easy way. Simple answers only demean those who suffer and pick at the wound. Sometimes it takes outside help.
When I came home from my 14 months in Vietnam with the 75th Rangers and another unit, I thought I could jump right back into society, into my former life, and continue as I had been. Maybe my friends had
become a bit older and seemed a little distant, but I was surely the same, I hadn’t changed, and it all smoothed out. And I thought I was doing a pretty good job of being who I used to be; to most people I think I was “passing as normal.” It took me more than 35 years to understand that I had some issues, and I came to understand that forgiveness was one of them.
One of the programs that I got involved with finally was an organization called the Warrior Connection and its week-long retreat to help combat veterans dealing with PTSD. After considerable talk about forgiveness, we made lists of those whom we wanted to forgive, and those from whom we wanted forgiveness. It works both ways. We ceremoniously burned the lists in a firepit, our pleas for forgiveness lifting heavenward in the smoke.
It made enough of an an impression on me that I
followed up later with people in my life where forgiveness needed to play a role.
Forgiving others takes time and work, something we need to practice every day. It begins with recognition and thanksgiving that we have been forgiven. We are the beneficiaries of “the crucified one.” Hanging
between two thieves Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them” That is the cry of infinite forgiveness, a cry we need to echo in our own lives, in our families, our work places, our parishes, our day to day life.
Forgiveness, of course, does not originate in us. It begins with God. That’s what the slave who refused to forgive didn’t understand. It wasn’t about him. It’s about God. We do not choose to forgive. We only choose to share the forgiveness we have already received.
How many times must we choose to forgive?
How many times have we been hurt and suffered by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled us? How many times has the thought of revenge filled us? How many times have we shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of
another? How many times have we replayed in our heads the argument with another?
That’s how many times we must choose to forgive.
With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness. And to quote the French martyr Dom Christian du Chergé, “Then one day, God willing, we will meet again, [victims and perpetrators,] as happy thieves in the Paradise of God.
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