A Meditation on Jesus and Forgiveness, reading Matthew 18:21-35.
How much forgiveness is enough forgiveness? Peter says seven times; Jesus says seventy-seven. Peter says eight times; Jesus says eighty-eight. Peter says nine times; Jesus says ninety-nine. Peter says, I give up. How much forgiveness is enough forgiveness? And Jesus says, I don’t know. But I can tell you this. That’s not the right question.
A twelve-year-old boy named John was playing one day with a nine-year-old girl who lived next door. Her name was Marie. Tragically, the two found a loaded pistol in a dresser drawer and before long their game turned into a nightmare; and little Marie was dead. Everyone in their small town attended Marie’s funeral—everyone that is except for twelve-year-old John, who just couldn’t face anyone and refused to talk at all.
That morning, after the funeral, Marie’s older brother went next door to talk to John. He said, “John, I want you to come with me. I want to take you to school.” But John refused, and he said, “I never want to see anyone ever again. I wish it was me who was dead.” But he insisted, Marie’s brother, and finally persuaded little John to go with him.
At school, the brother asked the principal to call a special assembly. Five hundred and eighty students filed sadly into the gymnasium; and Marie’s older brother stood, quietly, before them. He said, “A terrible thing has happened; my little sister was accidentally shot by one of your classmates. This is one of those tragedies that mars our lives.” There was silence in the gym; silence and uncertainty as to what would happen next.
And Marie’s brother said, “Now I want you all to know that my family and John’s family have been to church together this morning; and we shared in Holy Communion.” Then, calmly, he called John next to him, put his arm around the twelve-year-old’s shoulders, and went on: “This boy’s future depends much on us,” he said. “My family has forgiven John because we love him. Marie would want that. And I’m going to ask you to love and forgive him, too.” Then Marie’s brother hugged John, then and there, in front of five hundred and eighty kids; and they wept together.
Now here’s the thing: This little story undoubtedly marks the beginning, and not the ending, of that community’s journey in forgiveness. You’ll never get away with forgiving just once, says Jesus, or just seven times. It’s going to take a lifetime, an orientation of the heart, a turning toward grace day by day by day. Marie’s family will continue to struggle to embody this kind of love and forgiveness, a journey as demanding as any they’ll ever know. And John, John will most certainly continue to struggle to accept this kind of love and forgiveness.
And yet. And yet, Marie’s brother sought John out when John most needed it; and he risked his own raw feelings of grief to offer the arms of grace to a broken little boy. The world doesn’t heal with vengeance, Jesus says, and it doesn’t heal with bitterness and cynicism. The world heals, the world evolves with forgiveness. And a neighborhood gets another chance.
This little exchange between Peter and Jesus—the one we’ve read this morning—is as puzzling to me as it is crucial to our Christian practice. “How often should I forgive?” Peter asks. “How about seven times?” In other words, should I forgive every time? Should I forgive everything? Is that what it takes to please you?
But Jesus, as is his mind-bending wont, goes somewhere else; changes the conversation; dodges the question: “Not that, not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” In other words, eighty-eight times. In other words, ninety-nine times. In other words, quit counting! Quit tallying your little acts of kindness and expecting God to reward you for good behavior.
See what he’s doing, Jesus? Peter wants some idea, some sense of when enough’s enough. When he can jump ship on the whole forgiveness thing and get on to bigger and better things.
But Jesus says, there are no bigger and better things. And forgiveness has nothing to do with completing the task; nothing to do with appeasing God; nothing to do with earning God’s favor. You don’t just forgive because you have to...you forgive because it’s who you are. You forgive because you were born to forgive. You and I were put on this earth to forgive. It’s where blessing begins. It’s how healing matures. You forgive, Jesus says, because it’s who you are. It’s what Christians do.
And it’s hard.
In a story about the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center, a mother is asked on camera about her feelings of rage and anger. Her son was a New York City fire-fighter and a first responder at the towers that morning. He died heroically, rushing in to help whomever he could. Years later, his mother says she’ll always be angry; she’ll always resent those who decided life was cheap enough to bring destruction on her city and family. There’s a scowl, a sadness etched in her cheeks, that’s completely understandable. You watch her try to find words, and it just breaks your heart. He was 30-something. He had kids.
But she goes on. And it turns out there’s even more to her story, and even more to her pain. She hesitates between words, ideas; she gasps in grief; and then this same mother describes her last weeks with her son. Summer 2001. It seems they’d had a rocky go of it; something about his recent divorce and her just not accepting it. I think she says on camera that she’d refused to go to his second wedding, when he’d found love and made a new beginning. And their last phone call—days before 9/11—was hard, and angry.
And then he died. He was one of those selfless firemen rushing up the tower steps to do something, anything to help. Not only does this mother struggle, now, to find some way of forgiving the forces of hate that tore her family to pieces; but she struggles, even more, to forgive herself. To forgive herself for judging him. To reconcile with a son she can’t call up on the phone. To find a way to reconnect with better times and memories.
Watching this, you see this brave woman, this mother like so many other 9/11 mothers, working all this out, really struggling to name it and live it. And you also see how this kind of forgiveness, this kind of reconciliation, might take a long, long, long time. She’ll need friends, and a church, and encouraging stories along the way. She’ll need to work out ways to forgive terrorists, and then ways to forgive her son, and then ways to forgive herself. It’s her calling now; it’s her journey.
And I think that’s some part of what Jesus is saying to Peter. Forgiveness isn’t a simple transaction. You don’t just figure it out, offer it up and call it a done deal. Forgiveness is a matter of the heart, a life-long commitment, a way of being. And often, it takes a long, long, long time.
C.S. Lewis, for example, once made this note in his personal journal: “Last week, while at prayer, I suddenly discovered—or felt as if I did—that I had really forgiven someone I have been trying to forgive for over thirty years. Trying, and praying that I might.” Imagine that. Trying for over thirty years! Jesus wants Peter to practice forgiveness like that. As an orientation of the heart, as a daily practice without guarantee of success, as a daily walk with God. It takes as long as it takes. And even then, we keep forgiving, because it’s who we are. It’s rarely as easy as whipping off an email; or signing over a check; or even a Sunday prayer. Forgiveness is our life-long journey, the Christian’s life-long journey of spirit.
Several years ago, I came across the teaching of another great Englishman, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. It knocked my socks off. He says, “Forgiveness is the deep and abiding sense of what relation can be...and so it is itself a stimulus, an irritant, provoking protest at impoverished versions of social and personal relations.” It’s a stimulus, an irritant, he says (that’s the part I love), provoking protest at impoverished arrangements.
So this morning, on this tenth anniversary of 9/11, I want so much to embolden your practice of forgiveness. I’d go so far as to say the world is CRAZY with longing for children of God who practice and embody mercy and forgiveness. On the global stage: in places like Jerusalem and Kabul, places like DC and Sacramento. But in your own lives, in your own neighborhoods, too. I want to anoint you as agents of divine forgiveness—wherever you go, wherever you go. Let it stimulate in you new visions, fresh visions of what the world can be. What your life can be. Let it be an irritant—don’t you love that word?—let it be an irritant among us—when our communities run through bitter ruts and grow accustomed to the toxic blame game and the merry-go-round of cynicism. We know life is more than this. We know we are capable of more than this. We believe in the power of forgiveness: to heal the brokenhearted, to resurrect hope and creativity, to make all things new. That’s the gospel this morning: and you are Jesus’ partners in this forgiving, healing mission.
I want you all to think about taking part in the small group studies we’ve organized this fall—exploring a brand new curriculum I’ve written around “The Core Four”—four essential practices, transformative practices for progressive Christian folk. It’s a whole new thing. Very experimental. And I’d love for you to be in on it from the beginning.
Mindfulness, discipleship, communion. And forgiveness. I’m starting with my conviction that faith is indeed a journey, and I daresay, a journey of transformation. It’s a journey from a cradle in a cave to a cross on a hill; it’s a journey from Good Friday grief to Easter Sunday joy; it’s a journey from holiness to wholeness. And this faith journey necessarily involves practices—practices likemindfulness, discipleship, communion and forgiveness—practices we learn and mess up and learn all over again—practices we take up one day at a time, over a lifetime.
These practices invite an opening in us, a turning in our lives—and this turning makes all the difference. This is our turning to the One Big Love. This is our turning to the One Big Heart. This is our way of partnering with Jesus, and with Grace, with the Power of Love. Mindfulness, discipleship, communion. And forgiveness.
So Jesus says to Peter: You’ve got to forgive not just once, not just seven times, not just seventy-seven times. You’ve got to forgive—because that’s what forgiving souls do; that’s what disciples of love do; that’s what children of the light do. You forgive. Not just once to be done with it. Not just once to say you’ve finished your unpleasant task and earned divine appreciation. But you forgive every day, you open your heart to the promise of grace, to the possibility of reconciliation. You don’t settle, you never settle for long-term grudges or daily gossip. You don’t settle, you never settle for suspicion and resentment as tools for family life and day-to-day community. You forgive—every day, you open your heart to the promise of grace. And that’s like walking with Jesus. That’s like seeing him at your side. That’s like holding his hand and dancing toward the light and knowing that all will be well.
And if you ever need encouragement—for this practice—turn to the end of the story, to the last moments of Jesus’ life on earth. How he hangs on the empire’s cross, his own 9/11; he’s tortured by some, betrayed by others. And how he reaches deep—into his own practice, into his soul—and says, “Father, my God, forgive them all, for they just don’t know. They don’t know what they’re doing.” Right to end, in the throes of chaos and befuddlement and pain, in his own 9/11, Jesus forgives.
As will we. On 9/11. And every day we follow him.
Offered in worship, Sunday, September 11, 2011: First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz.