A Hard Blessing

Matthew 18:21-35

    As children, my sister and I got into the occasional quarrel. You know, over big things like who was looking at whom as we rode in the car, who crossed over into the pre-determined buffer zone in the back seat, who “borrowed” the other’s curling iron and did not return it. These disagreements were generally *not* characterized by respectful discussions where each person was heard, validated and a mutual decision was reached. There might have been a few instances when names were called, hair was pulled, and other shenanigans happened. On these occasions, the referee...ummm parent on duty would require apologies from one or both of us. These loving, heartfelt apologies (sarcasm)  were something to the effect of, sorry - without elaboration and as little eye contact as possible. One problem with these reconciliation meetings is that they usually occurred again and again. As in, “She always uses my stuff ….*insert litany of examples here* The problem was that forgiveness never really happened. Instead, we each lived with our own tally boards of wrongs the other committed.

    What does forgiveness mean to you? How do you forgive others? Does forgiveness require an apology where the person who has wronged us owns up to their slight? If that is the case, is forgiveness a passive response that is contingent upon the one in the wrong being the first to act?

    Today’s gospel reading invites us into a conversation between Peter and Jesus. You all know I love Peter, precisely because he’s not perfect. I look at Peter and think, phew there is a little room for me. Today is no exception. Peter sets up a conversation in which he expects to shine. He asks Jesus a question and has already figured out the perfect answer. He is sure this is a slam dunk move since Jesus has this habit of throwing questions back to the audience. So he asks, Jesus if a person sins against me, how often should I forgive?  

It is a pious question. How often should I forgive? When was the last time the necessary amount of forgiveness crossed your mind when you were in a position to do some forgiving? For most of us, the question is, Will I forgive you? Am I ready to forgive you? Our questions are rarely about how much or how often we should forgive.

    But Peter is ready with his answer. Should I forgive them 7 times? Doesn’t he sound good. Jesus, last week Andrew ate the very last brownie when he knew I was saving it for my dessert but I forgave him 7 times. Also, in this context, the audience would have known that 7 was a code number for completion. God created the world in 6 days and on the 7th, God rested. Yes, Peter, we see what you’ve done there. You threw in some snazzy theological knowledge to impress Jesus.

    What Peter did not see coming was that Jesus was not impressed. In fact he corrected Peter’s notion of forgiveness to expand it to 77 times. Nice try Petey, not seven times. You will forgive 77 times.

77? Is Jesus kidding? Is he having some fun with his good buddy Peter? How many of you are like me and secretly think 7 times is already overgenerous. Especially when there are times when forgiving once can seem too hard. 77 times? We do not just forgive to completion but we forgive beyond completion,  we forgive again and again and again. We forgive when we are wounded. We forgive when we are frustrated. We forgive when the person who has wronged us does not seem to realize or care that they have caused us harm in the first place.

    As I have pondered Jesus’ words for us this week...some of his most challenging, which is really saying something - I have found myself wondering how many of us have absorbed any of these beliefs about forgiveness:

  • Forgiveness means excusing or overlooking the harm that has been done to us and saying that everything is okay.

  • Forgiveness means allowing those who have hurt us to persist in their behavior

  • Forgiveness requires forgetting what happened

  • Forgiveness is something we can do at will, and always all at once

    If we have absorbed any of these distorted beliefs about forgiveness, it can come as both a shock and a relief to learn that such ideas were not what Jesus had in mind as he talked to Peter. Jesus expects us to forgive, that much is clear but Jesus does not lay upon us the burdens we lay upon ourselves - burdens that can render this exceedingly difficult Spiritual Practice impossible. The heart of forgiveness is not to be found in excusing harm or allowing it to go unchecked, It is to be found, rather, in choosing to say that although our wounds will change us, we will not allow them to forever define us.

    In the 1950’s six-year-old Ruby Bridges integrated an all-white school by herself, walking there every day with two federal escorts in front of her and two more behind her while an angry crowd of white adults hurled abuses on her little head as she passed by. Child psychiatrist Robert Coles, noticed her lips were moving as she walked, and asked her, in her home, what she was saying. She said she was praying, Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. Her parents hoped, by giving her that prayer, she could shield her mind and heart, and walk unscathed through her daily hell.

    Nelson Mandela, after 27 years in a South African prison, said, Forgiveness liberates the soul. It removes fear. That is why it is such a powerful weapon. When asked about his jailers, he responded that forgiving them was a choice to set himself free. he could leave those guards there in the prison instead of remembering them always by nursing resentment. It was not long after his release, before his election, when he came to Boston and danced a little freedom dance for all of us to see.

    At the end of yoga one afternoon, my instructor offered this statement for consideration and meditation: Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past can be changed. Forgiveness does not ask us to forget the wrong done to us but instead to resist the ways it seeks to get its poisonous hooks in us. Forgiveness asks us to acknowledge and reckon with the damage so that we will not live forever in its grip.

    There are times when we find the grace to forgive quickly. Other times the grace to forgive takes a long time. And, so forgiveness requires practice. It takeschoosing to work at it. And in real forgiveness, in true forgiveness, we might have to chip away at it again and again and again...maybe 77 times.

    The truth is that forgiveness might be the hardest blessing we will ever offer

It might be the hardest blessing we will ever receive.

As with any difficult practice, it is important to ask not only for the strength we will  need for it, but also for the grace: the grace that will, as we continue to practice, begin to shimmer through our wounds, drawing us toward the healing and freedom we could hardly have imagined at the outset.

As we consider forgiveness:

Is there some forgiveness you are being asked to practice?

Are there any ideas about forgiveness that you might need to release - or take on to enter this practice more fully?

What will it take to ask not only for the strength but also the grace you need to forgive another...or yourself?