Forgiving “Seventy-Seven” Times…

Matthew 18:21-35

It had been too long — far too long — since I last dragged the carpet cleaner out of the basement, filled it with soap and hot water, and ran it over the high traffic area in my hallway and living room. In fact, as I sit down to write this tonight I am still waiting for the carpet to dry to see if my effort made any difference at all.

The sad thing is that it is mostly my dirt, you see. The cat doesn’t go outside and my mother’s ventures outside the house are limited to a couple of times a week. I am the one who comes and goes and goes and comes and I am the one who has tracked in who knows what these last many months.

And the sad thing is that if I had only taken the initiative to do this sooner and more frequently, I probably would not be sitting here wondering tonight if the carpet is a lost cause. Indeed, the sad thing is that if I had only woken up to those stains sooner as well as my ability to do something about them, I could have, in these last weeks, stepped across that carpet with a lighter heart and not the building shame within that often seems to come with “stains” which are visible to anyone who has eyes to see.

And so it is I think of this now as I settle into Jesus’ words about forgiveness. Indeed, Peter’s question is as apt today as it was more than 2,000 years ago. Or at least I have heard it asked in one way or another and I have been known to ask it myself on many an occasion. How much forgiveness is enough, after all? How much do we need to forgive? How often should we be doing all we can to wash away the stains which weaken the bonds between us, which take their toll on our own sense of well-being — our very own peace, not to mention the peace between us?

We know the answer, of course, you and I who know deep down that this is the very hallmark of what it is to live as followers of the one who Forgave All in Us. The well of forgiveness is endless. In fact, Jesus is saying now that we are to forgive often and completely — as often and as completely as it takes — just as, as we hear in the vivid parable which follows — as often and as completely as we have been forgiven.

And yes, I have heard or have spoken aloud all the arguments against such as this. I know there are those who are not repentant, who perpetually seem to ‘offend.’  And I have, for instance, heard the heart wrenching stories of those whose abusers held their ‘requirement to forgive’ over their heads. ‘Good Church People’ who have used these words of Jesus as weapons to ensure that their victims would remain victims. And oh, I can’t help but believe that Jesus would have some choice words for those who would so twist the goodness of what is offered here into a servant of evil itself. But even with all of this, we still return to this. To follow the one who Forgave All in Us means to be People of Forgiveness.

And yes, I have also witnessed this truth in others who have every reason not to forgive — this ability to somehow let go, move beyond, sometimes even speak words of forgiveness to those who perhaps have not even asked for it, who surely may not deserve it — and in so doing to set themselves free. This is not an action I would ever insist someone else should take, but I know for me and for many, not forgiving — and not forgiving as often as forgiveness is called for — is the beginning of my own descent into precisely the kind of ‘torture’ spoken of in today’s Gospel for I have known myself to be held hostage by resentment and wounds that refused to heal as a result of my holding on to my hurt for too long.

And so it is a pretty common metaphor, I know, but for me there is something to this experience of trying to clean my carpets tonight as it relates to this practice of forgiveness which lies at the center of what it is to be a Follower of Jesus. If I would simply get to it sooner — even before the stains have a chance to show — it likely will clean up quicker and deeper. If I only just remember that Jesus does not speak of this now as optional, but as foundation for all that follows, I expect that with practice it does somehow come easier.

I do not speak for anyone but me when I say this, but this is so for me. What do you think?

  • How do these words of Jesus preach in your context where people may have had ‘forgiveness’ held over their heads as a weapon?
  • How do these words of Jesus preach in a world where we too often feel the need to ‘get even’ with those who are utterly unrepentant in how they have wounded us and forgiving would seem like letting go of the last bit of power we were holding on to?
  • What does it mean to forgive “seventy-seven” times? To you? To the people you serve?
  • I have offered a common example of ‘making clean’ which helped me think about forgiveness and the need to do so thoroughly and often. What examples come to mind for you?

2 comments

  1. Forgiveness is literally ‘letting go.’ ‘Letting go’ of an abuser is also letting go of the ties, the guilt, shame, and false sense of responsibility (‘It’s my fault that they act this way”) that enables the abuser to continue. Letting go means taking the next step of stopping the bullying and abuse as an act of responsibility. Hard to do – and almost impossible without support systems and a community of care. But that’s true forgiveness.

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