The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
The Discipline of Forgiveness
It is a great question – asked in just the right way. Peter knows what he is doing here. “How often should I forgive?” That's a good question. But he doesn't stop there. “As many as seven times?” Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. Not five. Not six. But seven times. A good man might forgive. What about one who would forgive seven times? That person would have to be pretty extraordinary. And so you see, it is a great question.
Every pupil wants to impress their teacher. Peter is no different. He wants Jesus to be impressed with him – impressed with the great depth of his kindness and goodness. And so he asks the question just knowing the answer will of course be something along the lines of: “Seven times. Well, Peter that is above and beyond. I was going to say once is enough. Your generosity astounds me. I mean, seven times!”
Peter really just asks the wrong person. Jesus' standards are always ridiculously high. If he would have asked me, for example, the same question he would have likely received the answer for which he was looking. I'm impressed any time someone chooses to forgive at all because many people do not forgive those who wrong them. Seven times then sounds like a lot of times to forgive someone.
It is difficult to get a pat on the head from Jesus; he is a pusher. Jesus heard Peter's offer and raised it. Jesus essentially says to Peter: just keep doing it. Don't give up at seven.
Forgiveness is a hard subject. We're always looking for the limits. What is good enough. And just when we think we've got it, just when we, like Peter, think we've become excessively generous with our forgiveness, Jesus moves the line.
We just marked on Thursday the 13th anniversary of 9/11. For many of us there is no better reminder of the burden of forgiveness. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, challenged the depth of our willingness to forgive that which seems unforgivable. The dancing in the streets that marked the death of Osama bin-Laden years later proved that most of us never quite got there.
It is hard. Forgiveness is hard. Not always, of course; there are instances when forgiveness is easy – like when the offense is minor, someone parks in our parking spot or bumps into you in Kroger. The offender says “sorry”; we say “don't worry about it; no problem.” And it is over. But then there is the big stuff. It seems like there is always someone or something that lives just beyond the reach of our forgiveness.
I think forgiveness is so difficult because we seldom feel like forgiving. It doesn't necessarily feel good to forgive. It doesn't undo the wrong. Often it feels like a loss, like we're letting the offender win. It does help release us from the burden of carrying around bitterness. And from a pragmatic perspective it is probably better for us to let go of past hurts. But that doesn't mean it feels good. Forgiveness does not always take away the pain or heal the scars or even prevent future violations.
It is not something we feel. It is something we do. Forgiveness is a disciple.
Many consider Jerry Rice the greatest wide receiver in football history. But coming out of high school he received no major college scholarship offers. He attended a small college; he wasn't the most physically gifted athlete. He should not have been the best. But he was incredibly disciplined.
It is said that: “In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers would trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would...continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home. Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to...running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. [The] workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of [these professional athletes] got sick before the day was over.” But he kept doing it – and not because it was fun. It was a discipline. And it made him the athlete he wanted to be.
Forgiveness is a discipline. It is not fun. It is a duty. It is work. But it makes us the kind of Christians God wants us to be. And so of course seven times is not enough. We have to do it again and again every day. Because the pain doesn't usually leave after the first time; the memory doesn't magically disappear. You might find there are certain people who wronged you terribly; who scarred you in ways that cannot be undone; there might be people you need to forgive every single day of your life because you live with the pain they caused every single day of your life. Forgiveness is often not a ‘want to’; but it is a ‘need to.’
Forgiveness only makes sense through the eyes of God's mercy – a mercy that transgresses the limits of fairness. God's forgiveness always crosses the line – offends even our generosity. And that is Jesus' challenge in today's Gospel. If Peter would have suggested seventy-seven times Jesus would have still offered a higher number. There is no limit to the mercy God shows us. And that is why we are challenged by Jesus to forgive and forgive and forgive without reservation. Not because it is nice or because it is easy or because it feels good but because it is the way of God's kingdom.
Forgiveness is like breaking open your heart to let God's kingdom come into the world. It is costly and painful; it's heart-breaking. Forgiveness is a loss. When you truly forgive someone who has wronged you, sinned against you, hurt you, you take the loss. It is not fair, but in a winner-take-all world, Jesus is asking us to take the loss.
But why should we? Why should we take the loss when vengeance is an option? Why take the loss when you could have the win? Long ago, there was “a meeting [in a monastic community] about a brother who had sinned. The Fathers spoke, but [one of the monks,] Abba Pior, kept silence. Later, he got up and went out; he took a sack, filled it with sand and carried it on his shoulder. He put a little sand also into a small bag which he carried in front of him. When the Fathers asked him what this meant he said, 'In this sack which contains much sand, are my sins which are many; I have put them behind me so as not to be troubled about them and so as not to weep; and see here are the little sins of my brother which are in front of me and I spend my time judging them. This is not right, I ought rather to carry my sins in front of me and concern myself with them, begging God to forgive me for them.' The Fathers stood up and said, 'Truly, this is the way of salvation.'”
We are all debtors – both victims and perpetrators – with nothing to do but collapse into the mercy of God. And that means, in life, we have a choice: to look obsessively for all of the ignorant, stupid, evil, misguided things that other people do or to look past all of that and gaze into the overwhelming mercy of God. Which is not to say that we don't confront sin in the life of the Church and the World; we are called to defend the vulnerable and protect the suffering. But evil can only be overcome with good; the sin of the world can only be overcome with love; a history of destructive cycles can only be overcome with forgiveness.
Forgiveness has never been easy. And never cheap. Forgiveness comes into the world through the broken body and broken heart of God. In a winner-take-all world, God already took the loss. So that we might be forgiven – again and again and again. And so that we in turn might forgive – again and again and again.