Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive as many as seven times?” Jesus said, “Not just seven times, but rather seventy-seven times.”
Today’s lesson teaches us that forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling moral debts. Let me say that again because it’s so important! … forgiveness is the only faithful Christian practice for settling disputes or disagreements. Not an eye for an eye nor a vengeance is mine mentality, but forgiveness. Now, I know, this can be tough to hear, particularly in the context of all the strife we’re experiencing right now, both individually and as a nation, and especially considering the political climate in which we find ourselves. But Jesus has been pretty clear over the course of these past few weeks that peace is only possible through forgiveness.
But how does that work? Well, there was a wonderful novel written a few years back that really puts this narrow understanding of forgiveness into perspective. It’s called The Shack by William P. Young. As the novel begins, Mack, the main character, has sunk into a depression he called “The Great Sadness” Mack is depressed because his youngest daughter, Missy, has been abducted and murdered four years prior. And in the darkest moment of this sadness, Mack received a note in his mailbox from “Papa”, saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. The shack being the place where Missy’s body was discovered. Mack was puzzled by the note, but in his grief, decided to the shack, unsure of what or who he might see there. Mack arrived and initially found nothing, but as he was leaving, the shack and its surroundings were supernaturally transformed into a lush and inviting scene. He entered the shack and encountered manifestations of the three persons of the Trinity. God “Papa” takes the form of an African American woman; Jesus is a Middle Eastern carpenter; and the Spirit physically manifests as an Asian woman.
Now, The bulk of the book narrates Mack’s conversations with Papa, Jesus, and the Spirit as he comes to terms with Missy’s death and his relationship with each of them. [i] The primary undercurrent of this story, however, is forgiveness. Will Mack be able to forgive Missy’s killer? And as we attempt to navigate our own “sadness’s”, and as we seek peace in these turbulent times, we too must come to terms with the nature of forgiveness.
In our lesson for today, Peter said, “Lord, how many times should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Seventy-seven times? Doesn’t that number seem kind of random? Arbitrary even? What gives? Why that number? Well, this is where we once again turn to context. Seventy-seven wasn’t arbitrary. Jesus used an ancient figure of speech here that meant “an uncountable numbers of times.” (seventy times seven or seventy seven, both are correct translations from the original Greek) And this choice of phrase is important in another way as well. It’s meant to remind us of another biblical figure who also used this same figure of speech but in a very different way. Lemech, descendent of Cain, was a tribesman who lived by a code of blood revenge. It’s Lemech who boasts in the book of Genesis of the moral warrant to avenge wrongdoing with unlimited violence. In the “Song of Swords” Lemech sings, “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lemech will be avenged seventy-sevenfold.” Lemech’s practice of settling disputes is that of seventy-sevenfold or unlimited vengeance toward one who had wronged him.
But, in polar contrast, we have Jesus. If we were to tease-out the full meaning of Jesus’ response to Peter’s question, it would go something like this. When it comes to conflict and to moral offenses, forgiveness is to Christians as vengeance was to Lemech. As unlimited and unrestrained as Lemech was in wielding violence as a way to right wrong, so will the Christian wield forgiveness in unlimited, unrestrained, and even indiscriminate fashion. For this is God’s way of curbing the lethal tendency in us all.
Lemech vowed to avenge unlimited times. Jesus commanded his followers to forgive unlimited times. This is to be our practice, our way of being in the world. We are to spread it wherever we go. The power of God is in love and forgiveness, not in vengeance and bloodshed.[ii]
Now, this concept of non-violence is vital as we think about all the troubles we’re experiencing today. It would be easy for us to adopt the mindset of Lemech – an eye for an eye mentality as it were – especially as we find ourselves mired in a contentious election season. But it’s a much greater thing, a more noble things, a more faithful thing to accept and then live-into the endless forgiveness that Jesus espouses.
Two weeks ago I invited all of us to explore the possibility of Being a Blessing to others rather than cursing them, even when we disagree. And today, Matthew takes us even deeper into that concept. Maybe think of it like this. If we bless rather than curse, if we forgive rather than hold a grudge, it will lead us toward the peace we’re so desperately seeking. Both an internal sense of peace, well-being, but also an ever-widening peace that transcends political, racial, or ideological lines.
But how do we do that? How do we go about becoming a blessing by letting forgiveness nurture our health and well-being in these troubled times? How do we go about choosing Jesus’ difficult way forgiveness over Lemech’s easy way of vengeance?
Well, theologian Thomas Longsaid it like this. “We know too well that the little boat in which we are sailing is floating on a deep sea of grace and that forgiveness is not to be dispensed with an eyedropper, but a fire hose.”[iii] …a fire hose!
Mack ended up needing to dispense a “fire-hose” kind of forgiveness. Not because his daughter’s killer deserved it, but because there was no other way to overcome his “great sadness.” Forgiveness literally saved Mack’s life. And forgiveness, God’s forgiveness, saves us as well. This is the foundation of what it means to be a blessing to others. This is the core of peace. There can be no peace without forgiveness, a fire-hose of forgiveness, for others and ourselves.
Let me leave you with this today. Henri Nouwen once said, “Forgiveness is the name of love practiced among people who love poorly. The hard truth is that all people love poorly. We need to forgive and be forgiven every day, every hour increasingly. That is the great work of love among the fellowship of the weak that is the human family.”[iv]
As we move into this time of community prayer, may we share the forgiveness, the “love practiced” that we’ve received; may we be a reflection of all the blessings that have been bestowed upon us; and may we, as a people of faith, find a way to begin to practice the peace that we desire for all people, for all nations including ours; may we finally, become peacemakers, and assume the title, Children of God.[v] May it be so… Amen & Amen.
[i] Synopsis of The Shack found in Wikipedia.
[iii] Thomas Long Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion.
[v] Matthew 5:9