Forgiveness 101

"Forgiveness," Image by Appalachian dreamer via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

“How often should I forgive, Jesus?” Of course, Jesus’ response to Peter’s question doesn’t really provide an answer but rather points out the misdirection of the question itself. How many times should we forgive? The issue is not how much or how often we are asked to forgive or should forgive. The act of forgiveness is already a limitless, measureless act. Forgiveness is never not present in our lives and in our relationships. That’s the issue. Forgiveness is part and parcel of the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s a constant. It’s not optional. It’s not a choice. We want it to be — and that’s at the heart of Peter’s question.

This is forgiveness according to the Kingdom of Heaven and it’s a hard truth to hear. As much as we want to exercise one of the essential marks of the Christian faith, we cannot bring ourselves to accept or imagine the endless and inestimable nature of forgiveness that Jesus assumes.

For me, honestly, it’s a hard truth for me to hear. I am inclined toward order and measure. As I have shared before, I was a violinist in my former life. I was a math minor in college. I rather like the precision and predictability that comes with acquired skills, practice, and accountability. But, if we have learned anything from Matthew thus far, especially Matthew’s parables, it’s that the Kingdom of Heaven refuses to bend toward our need for reasoning and explanations, our desire for chartable paths and existential equations.

It’s also a hard truth for me to hear because it sets in motion reflection. This is the truth of this passage as well. It sets in motion — deeply, tragically, painfully — memories of those people I was reluctant to forgive. It sets in motion thoughts of those waiting for my forgiveness. It sets in motion reminders of those whom I don’t think I can ever forgive. I will ponder all of that this week. What is holding me back? What quid pro quo am I expecting to make my forgiveness more palatable or possible?

I also want to preach against this passage. Jesus, what about those wrongs which are unforgivable? And there are many. I am not sure what to do with these given Jesus’ words. But perhaps it’s enough, at least for now, that Jesus makes me think again about the purpose of forgiveness in my life — when I need it, when I give it, when I hold back; to ask myself, what am I waiting for? What still has to happen?

So, Dear Working Preachers. I am not certain that a sermon in which you tell people, “just forgive” or “forgive more,” is the best strategy. Or, a sermon that explains that how we are doing forgiveness is all wrong. There is no magic formula to determine what forgiveness should look like or feel like. Instead, I am inclined toward a sermon which gives space for sitting in the discomfort and complexity of what Jesus is doing here. The issue is how hard forgiveness really is. Jesus is upending the basic structures of how we negotiate relationships.

We live in and feel more comfortable with a way of being with each other that is quantifiable and transactional. We like knowing how much we have to give and what we will get in return. This seems especially true when it comes to forgiveness. We should ask ourselves, why is it that we want and need forgiveness to be computable and calculable? We want confines and controls for forgiveness; parameters and strictures; conditions and qualifiers. Yet, that’s not usually what we want, right? We treasure our freedom. We resist situations and systems that would curtail our choice and autonomy. How ironic.

So, what is it about forgiveness that exposes this deeper human truth? I wonder if it’s because we believe that all of our attempts to understand or make sense of forgiveness, especially God’s forgiveness, might somehow secure our own absolution.

If your Sunday worship service regularly includes confession and forgiveness, this would be an opportunity to take some liturgical license and move the confession and forgiveness to immediately after the sermon. Often our resistance to forgive is rooted in our resistance to believe that we ourselves can be forgiven. The final truth of this exchange between Peter and Jesus is that as much as we place controls over when and where and why we forgive others, we first do it to ourselves. Perhaps that’s the hardest truth to hear, especially for us preachers. We know all too well and have felt all too often the weight of our own unworthiness of forgiveness – so then how can we possibly declare it for others?

But, declare it we must. Believe it we must. Dear Working Preachers, as a called and ordained minister in the church of Christ and by Jesus’ authority alone, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all of your sins. Amen.