Forgiveness and Reconciliation: Seventy-Seven
I’ve mentioned to you before that I’m part of a clergy Bible Study group, where I meet weekly with some of my colleagues for study and reflection. Right now, we’re reading a book together called Questions God Asks Us by Trevor Hudson. In the book, each week, we examine together a question God asks of someone in the scriptures. This week, we talked about the question God asks of Cain, just after he has murdered his brother Abel. God asks, “Where is your brother?” We talked about how this question implies that we have responsibility for one another – not just our friends and loved ones, but our society as a whole, and in particular, those who are our enemies.
As we were discussing this, a few in the group shared that they don’t really feel that they have anyone that they’d call an enemy. Now, this is great for them, but I found myself a little skeptical. Here’s the challenge I raised: Jesus talks all the time about how we’re supposed to treat our enemies. He tells us we’re supposed to pray for them, forgive them, love them. And I think it would be pretty easy for us to read the scripture and say, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that part, because I don’t have any enemies!” And so we can check Jesus’ teachings off our list as “does not apply” because “me – I don’t have any enemies! Sure, people maybe I don’t get along with from time to time. People I’d rather not see, or talk to, or interact with, or be around … but not enemies, right?”
I shared with them about a challenge my co-pastor at Liverpool UMC gave to the congregation while we were serving there together. He asked people to pray every day for 30 days for the person who was their enemy. For a person who they didn’t like very much. For the person that they were in conflict with, avoiding, disliking, whatever. You know – the name that pops right into your head as soon as the subject is brought up. Pastor Aaron told us to pray for that person every day – simply for God to bless them. Nothing more, nothing less. And indeed, I shared that my immediate reaction was a bit like Job’s reaction I talked to you about last week – “No, I don’t want to do that!” Because I had a feeling – a knowing – that if I prayed for my enemies every single day that God would change not them perhaps, but me. And I was perfectly content holding onto my anger and resentment. How we forgive enemies, how we love them – maybe it changes them – but that’s not the part we’re responsible for. We will be changed by loving and forgiving as Jesus teaches.
So, do you have enemies? Before you say no, let me ask you some follow up questions. Are there some people that when they talk, you’re prone to roll your eyes a bit behind their back? Is there someone whose behavior you pay particular attention to, even though you aren’t really friends? You always know what this person is up to – what they’re doing or what they’re failing to do that you do or don’t like? A person you’re likely to talk about to others? That person whose face popped into your head as soon as we started talking about this?
On the other side of questions from the ones God asks us in the scriptures are the questions people ask of Jesus in the gospels. I’ve noticed two main categories of questions people ask Jesus. The first one is easy: people ask Jesus something like, “Huh? What do you mean? I don’t get it. Can you explain that?” People ask this question to Jesus a lot. But it’s the second category I want to focus on today. The second question people ask Jesus goes something like this: What’s required? How much is enough? What do I have to do to still be ok, “in,” doing “enough” to please God? They show up as questions like this: Which commandment is most important? What must I do to inherit eternal life? Is it right to pay taxes? Who is my neighbor? What reasons are ok for a man to give to divorce his wife? Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Why don’t you and your disciples follow the rules? How often do I have to forgive – is this enough? And Jesus’ answers to these questions comes to us in parables about the kingdom, about what the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is like.
Our text for today is a perfect example of one of these exchanges. The topic is forgiveness. And the question is how much/how often/what is required. Peter wants to know how much he’d need to forgive someone else in the community of faith who sinned against him. And Jesus answers with a parable about the kingdom of heaven.
Before our text for today, the disciples have asked Jesus some questions, and he has responded, teaching about not being stumbling blocks for one another, talking about it being better to enter God's kingdom without a foot or hand rather than to stumble and stray because of it. He speaks about conflict in the community, recommending a course of action if someone has sinned against you. And then, perhaps in response to this teaching, Peter asks Jesus: ʺLord, if another member of the faith community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?ʺ Now, the way Peter asks his question gives you an idea that he thinks he is being pretty broad in his suggested response. As many as seven times? Peter asks and lets Jesus know he thinks seven times is a lot. See, Peter is learning, even though he stumbles. He is learning from Jesus and has learned that Jesus is pretty extravagant sometimes – not when it comes to having things and possessions and money. But extravagant about his relationships with others. Jesus is pretty extravagant with his compassion, justice, and mercy. Always going farther than anyone else was prepared to go. Peter, I suspect, thinks he will impress Jesus, by saying he suspects you might need to forgive someone up to seven times if they sin against you! Seven times!
Jesus replies, “Nice try, Peter. Try seventy seven times. Seventy seven.” Not because Jesus actually wants us to count up to 77 in the number of times we forgive. But because Jesus wants us to stop counting. Because we’re asking the wrong question. Jesus tells a parable, about the kingdom of heaven, saying, “It’s like this. A king wanted to settle his debts. He called forward a slave who owed him 10,000 talents. The slave could not pay, so the king prepared to sell the slave, his family, and his possessions to make the payment. But the slave begged for mercy and patience, promising to pay. The king had mercy and cancelled the entire debt and released the slave, beyond what the slave asked for. But later, the same slave encounters a peer who owes him a small sum of money, a hundred denarii. He violently demands payment, and when his peer can’t pay, and begs for mercy, the slave denies him mercy, and has him thrown in prison. When the king finds out about it, he calls the slave before him. ‘How could you not show mercy to your fellow slave, as I showed you mercy?’ Finally, the king hands the slave over and requires payment for the debt.” Jesus concludes, saying that this is how it will be with us if we do not forgive one another.
As you know, I’ve had a small group from the church working with me on my research project. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about outreach, charity, and justice. In a Bible Study session, we talked about justice and righteousness – they’re almost use synonymously in the Bible, and I understand their meaning when I think about how we justify text in written documents – papers, newspapers, magazines, books. You can make the margins all line up evenly – that’s justified text – or you can let the lines end in a jagged sort of way, all out of line – that’s unjustified. Personally, I always like both of my margins justified. When we talk about justice and righteousness, we’re talking about getting things set right, set in a right line with God’s vision for us. Justice is when God’s will is fully carried out here on earth, when everything we do, and all of our relationships, are in a straight line, lined up with God’s hopes for us.
We talked in our study about how charity is optional – we can choose to give or not give to others as we will. But justice is what God requires. Yes, we can fail to achieve it, fail to participate in it, but justice – that wholeness and right relationship – is God’s aim and intention for our world. Justice is a requirement of God’s world when it is set right. But God doesn’t stop there. Throughout the writings of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus, it’s clear that we’re meant to love justice, just as God loves justice. It’s required for God’s vision of wholeness, but God’s true hope is for us to love and seek after justice and wholeness because we want to realize that same vision of the world that God wants. Real justice isn’t when we seek out the minimum we can do and still get by. It is when, instead, full of love for God and one another, we seek after justice as a way to have the world, and our hearts, set right in line with God.
God keeps asking us about our relationships with one another, and we keep responding to God with questions about what the least is that we can do and still “get by.” How many times must we forgive? Who is our neighbor? What’s required? We’re already asking the wrong questions! As soon as we wonder first about the requirement before or even instead of seeking out the love and grace that motivates forgiveness, that motivates our relationships, that motivates our following Jesus, we’re asking the wrong question, and we’ll never find the answer that satisfies. But, how can I show love to my enemy? How might forgiveness changes lives and set us free? How is God’s grace transforming me? What miracles will forgiveness work in the world? What is the kingdom of God like? What would it be like to experience the kingdom of heaven, God’s wholeness, God’s right relationships, on earth? Those are the questions that will keep our lives in an endlessly unfolding conversation with Jesus, as we experience the kingdom that is already at hand. Amen.