Forgiveness ad infinitum

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Christians have known by heart, and recited what is popularly referred to as the Lord’s Prayer. Thus we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Forgiveness then, is at the heart of Christian life and practice.

In the Gospel Reading for Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19) Peter is shown asking Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-35)

There may be some comfort in all this when we are thinking of “another member of the church”. Indeed this Reading continues from the previous Sunday’s reading (Matthew 18:15-20) which has Jesus saying, “If another member of the church sins against you” take such and such steps to deal with the situation.

Jesus’ teaching is to forgive not seven times – which is quite many – but seventy times seven times (according to some translations) or seventy-seven times (according to others). Whichever way one looks at it, the teaching is to forgive ad infinitum, or without end. The motivation here is that if we have been forgiven – as the parable in this Sunday’s Gospel shows – or if we are expecting to be forgiven, as Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer, we need to know that our forgiveness is connected to the forgiveness we extend to others.

The question comes back again: Are the “others” members of the church only? Are they our own only?

In this country, right now we are talking war. Indeed we have been at war since 9/11/2001. The main reason that support for military action has surged is ISIS’s beheading of “our journalists”. It is barbaric – no doubt about it – but they have been doing that to “others” all along and we said nothing. Minorities have been persecuted, banished from their historic homelands and we have been silent.

But can we forgive and not take military action? Perhaps the larger question should be: what could we do to reverse this culture of violence? It is said that the twentieth century was the most violent century in history. The current trend projects that that will pale in comparison to the twenty-first.

One of the roots of the suspicions and even acrimony we hold against one another is injustice in its various forms. I believe if we honestly and courageously address injustices in our communities and around the world we would go a long way towards changing the culture of violence. In so doing we will be practicing forgiveness too.