Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday September 13, 2020
Scripture: Matthew 18:21-35
Jesus’s disciples came up to him one day to ask him about this Kingdom of God that he kept talking about. What is it going to be like? Who is going to be the greatest person in this kingdom? And Jesus, rather than proclaiming any one person to be the king in this kingdom, instead he started talking about community. He talked about living well together. He talked about being humble, and welcoming the least valuable members of our current society. He talked about how to resolve disputes in this community when they eventually arise. And he promised that he would be there at the center of this community, at the center of this kingdom.
Peter, one of the disciples, well, he was listening hard to everything that Jesus had to say. He recognized that it wasn’t going to be easy, living in this sort of community. And so he asked Jesus, “When someone does something wrong to me, I can forgive them. It will be hard, but I can do it. And if they do something wrong to me again, I can forgive them again. How many times should I continue to forgive them? Shall I forgive them seven times? After all, seven is the number of wholeness, the number of perfection, and so a seven-fold forgiveness is perfect forgiveness.”
But Jesus stopped him there, before he could go any further. Jesus said to him, “Seven times isn’t enough, because what happens the eighth time that they do something wrong to you. No – instead of withholding forgiveness after seven times, you must forgive them seventy seven times; even seventy times seven times. Too many times to keep track of, too high of a number to be able to keep score. Perfection, multiplied.”
Now I could stand here today, and preach a sermon about the beauty and importance of forgiveness. I could quote the bible at you, and cite the tradition of the church, and talk about how forgiveness is central to our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. I could talk about how, each time when we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I could talk about the Old Testament idea of jubilee, where after 7 cycles of 7 years, all debts would be forgiven and everyone in society could have a fresh start on equal footing. I could read the parable of the Prodigal Son, whose wrongs were forgiven and he was welcomed home. I could talk about Jesus, on the cross, calling out to the one whom he calls Father asking for forgiveness for those who were torturing and crucifying him.
But I can’t preach that sermon. I can’t preach it, because forgiveness is hard. Forgiveness is so hard, that it borders on impossible. If forgiveness were easy, then it wouldn’t be something that Jesus needs to teach us. If forgiveness were easy, then there would be no need for Truth and Reconciliation commissions in South Africa, in Rwanda, or here in Canada. If forgiveness were easy, then philosopher Jacques Derrida wouldn’t have written, “forgiveness forgives only the unforgivable” ("On Forgiveness"), for if something is easily forgivable then it doesn’t require a true act of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is hard.
When I think of the times when I have had to forgive someone, it brings up feelings of discomfort, of stomach churning. It is a visceral response. I’m not going to share any details, but I think of a time when someone in my life betrayed a significant trust. It hurt. I lost sleep over it. That betrayal of trust worked its way backwards, and made me lose my love for something that I had previously enjoyed. I was sad, and I was angry. I wanted absolutely nothing to do with that person ever again.
Jesus says that we are to forgive someone 77 times, and here I am, struggling to forgive someone just once.
I remember discussing forgiveness in a class at AST, and how difficult forgiveness is, and the ethical dimensions of forgiveness. Our faith gives us an absolute imperative to forgive. Jesus tells us that we are to forgive – no ifs, ands, or buts. We can’t put conditions on our forgiveness – if only that person would do this or say that, then I could forgive them. No – Jesus tells us that we are to forgive. Yet ethically, what does it mean to forgive someone who has done something illegal or harmful, and shows no signs of stopping or wanting to change their behaviour.
I think that, before we look at what forgiveness is, it is important to look at what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not easy. I think that is pretty easy to understand.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. If something is so trivial that we could forget it, then does it really need forgiving?
Forgiveness is not allowing ourselves to become doormats. Too often, these words of Jesus telling us that we are to forgive someone who has done us wrong 77 times, or seventy-times-seven times – too often these words have been interpreted, often by clergy, to encourage people, especially women, to remain in abusive relationships. But forgiving someone does not mean that you give them permission to do the same harm to you over and over and over again.
Forgiveness is also not the same thing as reconciliation. Forgiveness is the act of letting go of the hurt. Reconciliation is rebuilding a relationship. As followers of Jesus, I do believe that we are called to reconciliation as well as to forgiveness, and I think that forgiveness is the first step towards reconciliation, but they aren’t the same thing. In order for reconciliation to happen, there has to be a commitment by both parties to rebuild the relationship, and forgiveness is a necessary part of the process so that past wrongs aren’t continually being held against the person. Forgiveness, the letting go, can happen without reconciliation; but reconciliation can’t happen without forgiveness. They are related, but they aren’t the same thing.
This is what forgiveness isn't. So what is forgiveness then?
A wise mentor once told me that forgiveness is about not giving another person permission to take up space in your brain, rent-free. Or, to flip it around, writer Anne Lamott says that when we don’t forgive, it is like drinking rat poison ourselves and expecting the rat to die (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts of Faith). When we hold on to our resentments, our anger, our pain, the person who caused them isn’t affected at all – we are the ones who are harmed when we withhold forgiveness. We give permission to that other person to occupy space in our brains, and to continually cause us pain. Forgiveness is the act of letting all of that go.
In the parable that follows the teaching, the person who refuses to forgive another’s debts is sent off to be punished, to be tortured. And while this may seem to be an extreme reaction, I think that often the torture that we experience when we don’t forgive another person doesn’t come from outside – instead the pain that we continue to experience over and over again is coming from inside ourselves.
Getting back to my own experience of a betrayal of trust, I ended up working through my pain with a spiritual advisor who was able to help me to let go of this pain and anger. I don’t think that reconciliation is ever going to be possible in this situation, but if the person who betrayed my trust were ever to express a genuine desire for reconciliation, I would be open to it. For now though, forgiveness is going to have to be enough.
In that conversation at AST about the difficulty of forgiveness, and the ethical implications, my professor, Dr. Alyda Faber, said, “the first step towards forgiveness is a desire to forgive.” Forgiveness is hard. If we don’t want to forgive someone, then we aren’t ready to go there yet. She shared her own story with us, and said that each morning she would wake up and ask herself, do I want to forgive that person yet. And for the longest time, the answer was no. She wanted to hold on to her anger and pain. But then one morning she woke up, and the answer was yes. She wanted to forgive the person. She wasn’t able to forgive them yet, but she had taken the first step.
And I think that this might be why Jesus tells us that we may have to forgive someone 77 times, or 490 times. Because it’s a process – it’s not like we can chose to forgive someone once and it’s over.
Even in the process of writing this sermon, I dug up my old pain thinking about how I had been betrayed. And I had to make a conscious decision once again to forgive that person – to not let myself dwell on the pain that had been inflicted.
To move from a betrayal of trust to a much more traumatic event, I want to finish with a powerful song by Canadian rapper Shad called "I'll Never Understand." He wrote this song with his mother, Bernadette Kabango. She is Rwandan, and several of her family members were killed in the genocide in 1994 – her father, her brother, her sister. She wrote a poem about the process of forgiveness, and her words and voice are interwoven with her son’s voice. She talks about the process of forgiveness being like untying the chains that were keeping her bound to the people who killed her family. Her final words in the poem are:
“I untied the chains,
Knowing the one who said to do it seventy times seven
Totally understands the depth of my pain.”
you want to listen to the song, you can find it by clicking here.
Content warning: the song talks about the events that inspired it.)
And I think that’s maybe the key to all of this. Jesus tells us to forgive again and again, but he isn’t telling us this in any superficial sort of way. Jesus knows what it is like to forgive the people who were torturing and killing him. The one whom Jesus calls “Father” knows what it is to forgive the ones who killed their child.
Forgiveness is hard. But we are called to untie the chains that keep us bound to the past, bound to our pain, bound to the one who caused us the pain. We are called to untie those chains and move on towards healing and freedom. And may God be with us as we go, and may the Holy Spirit give us the strength to do so. Amen.
Image: “chained” by Jamie Bradway
CC BY-NC-ND 2.0