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Forgiveness: Not seven times, but seventy seven times

Ordinary Sunday 24: 11th September, 2005
Fr Tom Brown, SSM
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill

Over the past near forty years a country I've visited a number of times is South Africa. I visited in the height, or perhaps I should say the depths, of the apartheid era. I was there when the ANC was suddenly and unexpectedly unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from his twenty years in prison, and I've been back since democratic elections were held. It's been fascinating to see the changes which have happened there over the years, and although South Africa still has a lot of problems, things have worked out far, far better than I thought would be possible twenty years ago.

One of the main reasons for this, I believe, is the way that the black African majority has been able to forgive: to let go of bitterness and resentment, to let go of a wish to take revenge, to get their own back, for all the suffering and injustice which was forced on them. The most obvious example of this is Nelson Mandela himself, but it's also true of thousands of others who were injured, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and so on, by apartheid. If all these had been determined to seek revenge for the harm done to them, which we could easily feel they had every right to do, then the recent history of South Africa would have been very different.

I'm quite sure that a major factor in all this is that South Africa is a profoundly Christian country. Not all South Africans are Christians of course, but the majority are, and Christianity plays a very important part in their lives. And at the very heart of Christianity, of being a Christian, is the call of Jesus that we should forgive one another. This is a distinctly Christian emphasis. There's not the same absolute imperative to forgive in Judaism or Islam. But forgiving is central to Christianity. It's been this readiness to forgive that I find very impressive in South Africa, and which I'm sure has made so much difference to how things have worked out there.

The need to forgive one another is something Jesus emphasised again and again. In the gospel this morning, Peter asks Jesus, How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus says, Not seven times, but seventy seven times. (In fact he doesn't mean literally seventy seven times. In the idiom of that time this is a way of saying, There's no limit; you don't count; you just keep on forgiving.) Then he goes on to tell a parable.

It's the story of a king settling accounts with his slaves. One of them owed him ten thousand talents. This was an enormous amount of money, literally millions of dollars, such a huge amount that it's hard to imagine that it could every possibly be repaid. The king demanded his money, but when the slave begged for mercy the king let him off the debt altogether. But then this same slave went out from the king and came across a fellow slave who owed him 100 denarii: about $20. He demanded repayment, and the other slave begged for mercy, but this was refused, and he had him thrown into prison. When the king was told about this he was furious: "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?"

The point of the parable is pretty obvious. God has had mercy on us, forgiving us our sins, our shortcomings, our failures, not holding them against us. Having been shown such great mercy by God, we surely can forgive others when they wrong us. And if we're not prepared to forgive others, how can we expect God to forgive us? So there's a link between God's forgiving us our sins, and our forgiving other people who wrong us. God shows mercy to us, we correspondingly must show mercy to others. We need God's forgiveness, but when we ask for it, as we do each time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're reminded that we need to forgive others. "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

So forgiveness is central to what it means to be a Christian: unless we're prepared to forgive others, we cannot expect God to forgive us.

But we know from experience that forgiving others is often not at all easy to do. What if we simply find it impossible to forgive another person? Sometimes we've been so badly hurt, or someone we love has been so badly hurt, that we really find we can't forgive the person responsible, no matter how hard we try. We simply cannot feel forgiving towards them.

There's no easy way out of this. But it is something we must always be ready to do something about. If we do nothing about seeking reconciliation with a person who has wronged us, if we just let the resentment and anger continue, we're clearly disobeying God. As well as this, if we fail to forgive, if we hold on to our resentment and bitterness against the other person, the one who's harmed is not the person who hurt us, but ourselves. If we persist in holding on to bitterness and resentment, above all it's ourselves we harm. We make our own lives miserable. So it's both a divine imperative and a human imperative to forgive. We must forgive, both because Jesus calls us to, and also because when we refuse to forgive it's ourselves we hurt.

Part of forgiving is recognising that for the Christian there is no place at all for revenge, for trying to get our own back when someone hurts us. The Old Testament does allow revenge: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." If someone injures you, you can pay them back with an equivalent injury, nothing more. Revenge is limited, but permitted. This, however, is one of the Old Testament commandments which Jesus completely abolishes. Jesus said, You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. Jesus forbids revenge altogether. Instead of taking revenge against someone who hits us, we're to turn the other cheek. We're not to hate our enemy and seek vengeance against him; we're to love our enemy, to forgive our enemy, not to bear grudges, not to be resentful and seek for vengeance.

So when someone hurts us, and we find it very hard to be forgiving, one thing we can do, and which can be a step towards forgiveness, is to refuse to act towards them in a vengeful way. We can decide that we won't try to take revenge for the hurt they've done us, either by what we do or what we say - especially by what we say. One way to take revenge is by physically harming the person, but perhaps the most common way people take revenge is by talking about the people they've something against, criticising them, gossiping about them, in a way which runs them down, and tries to destroy them in the eyes of others. As Christians we may not do this: we may not take revenge on others, and this includes hurting them by what we say to them or about them. For Christians, revenge is out.

In the end, perhaps the most important thing about forgiving is being prepared to let go; to let go our pride so that we can go to the person who's hurt us to try and be reconciled; to let go the very natural human tendency to seek revenge, to pay back the person for the harm they've done to us, to harm them in return. Especially forgiveness is a matter of letting go our sense of grievance, the resentment, the bitterness, the hatred even, of the other person.

It isn't easy to forgive. It's always costly. And there'll always be a need to bring to God our difficulty in forgiving other people, to reflect on how God has forgiven us, and to ask for his help in forgiving others. We can reflect on Jesus being nailed to the cross, and even while the nails were being hammered in through his hands and feet, he prayed, "Father, forgive them." We may find it very hard to love our enemies, but we can remember that God loves them, as he loves us, and we can ask God to give us some of the love he has for them.

Forgiveness is at the centre of Christianity: God's forgiveness of our sins, and our need to forgive those who sin against us. We may not hold on to our grudges, our resentments against others. We cannot seek revenge, to get our own back. We are to forgive, not seven times, but without limit. Our God is an infinitely forgiving God, and he calls us to the same spirit of forgiveness.


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