Year A, Pentecost 15
As you may know, there are many different English translations of the Bible. For instance, there are some that use more modern language to make the Bible more accessible. The differences between these different translations can be very subtle. Then there are weird differences. For instance, in today’s reading, Peter asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone. He suggests seven, which he probably perceives as a fairly generous allotment. I certainly would. Jesus’s answer is: “Not 7 times, but, I tell you, 77 times.” However, there are other translations where Jesus answers, “Not 7 times, but, I tell you, 70 times 7.” That is 490 times for those of you who are not math people. That is significantly larger than 77 times. People have gone back and forth between those two numbers for centuries. Most people don’t worry too much about the specific number, because whether it is 77 or 490…it’s a big number. Once you have forgiven someone 77 times, what’s another 413 times?
Yet I find it interesting that different translations are determined to have the correct number, whether it be 490 or 77. Some people even feel the need to argue about it. In our culture, numbers, scores, scales, percentages—all of those things are important. We put a lot of value in numbers, whether it is a test score, the Dow Jones, salaries, the price of gas, the temperature, the number of people who are at church on any given Sunday, our weight, etc. Joshua goes to the pediatrician every 3 months. They weigh him, measure is height and the size of his head. Then they tell us how he stacks up compared to other children his age. When my husband takes Joshua and I am not there, he always forgets to write down the percentages, which makes me crazy. It’s important that I know how the size of his head compares to other children his age. Numbers are important—maybe more so than they should be.
It was no different in Jesus’ time. Numbers mattered to people. That was why Peter was asking such a ridiculous question… “How many times should I forgive someone Jesus? How about 7 times?” Jesus was smart and he knew that Peter was trying to pin him down. He would have none of it, so he decided to play along. 77, how does that sound Peter? Or 490? What Jesus knew—and probably what Peter knew as well– was that the number doesn’t matter because asking Jesus to assign a number to forgiveness is crazy. It would be like asking someone to rate how much they love you on a scale on 1 to 10. There are some places in our lives where numbers are useless. In some ways, they even get in the way because they distract us from things that matter.
Forgiveness is hard, even if you are trying to forgive one person once. It’s not as clear cut as Peter wanted it to be. When I read this text, my first thought was, “Not forgiveness again. I’m sick of talking about forgiveness.” It’s not that I don’t like forgiveness. I think it’s great. There is only so much you can say about forgiveness. It seems like almost every sermon comes down to this: You should forgive. It’s good for you. It’s good for the person you are forgiving. God forgives you, so you should forgive others. If that is true, then why is it so hard?
I have read stories about people forgiving others for horrible crimes and atrocities. The people who forgive typically talk about what it can do for the other person. Being forgiven can break the cycle of sin. It provides an opportunity to start again. It also provides a healing salve for the relationship and the people involved. In these stories, the people who forgave the sin said it was good for them. It freed them. When I hear these stories, I always envision a moment when someone just lets go and suddenly feels lighter and freer. I have tried that. I have even written it down. I forgive so and so. I say it out loud. Then nothing happens. I don’t feel a weight lifted off of me. I don’t feel transformed. There are certainly sometimes when it is easier to forgive someone, especially when they apologize and seem contrite. I find that having a conversation with someone and understanding what went behind their actions to be helpful. But it’s the other kind of sins that are harder to forgive, the ones that people won’t even admit are sins, the ones that keep being committed over and over again.
That’s what I think Jesus was getting at when he threw that unimaginable number out to Peter. Forgiveness isn’t a one and done thing. We can’t just wipe the slate clean and move on. Forgiveness (for humans) is a process that takes time. It’s like a wound that heals slowly. At first you have the wound and it looks ugly. It also hurts constantly. Then the wound turns into a bright red scar. It looks bad, but not quite as bad as before. It doesn’t hurt all the time. The scar gets lighter every day and every year. Sometimes it even disappears. There are also times when the scar remains because the wound was too deep. It’s better, but it’s still there. That is the way forgiveness works. It starts the process of healing for you and hopefully the person you are forgiving.
There are some sins that are easier to forgive and some that are much harder. We can and should try to forgive and heal…we might try our whole lives and that scar never quite goes away. We might never get to the point where we experience that feeling of being lighter and freer. Yet that does not mean that we should not try to forgive. It might even be a matter of admitting that we cannot forgive and turning it over to God….saying, “God, I can’t do this so I am handing it off to you.”
Often times when I preach about forgiveness, or loving our enemies, someone will say something to the effect of: “What about the mass murderers…or the people who participate in human trafficking?” I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t. However, I think that often times, we go to those drastic examples because it’s easier than thinking about the smaller and more personal sins that are less dramatic, but still hurtful. For now, let’s not worry about forgiving the mass murderers, the terrorists or the people selling children into slavery. I am not asking you to forgive them and frankly I don’t think God is too worried about that either. God will judge those people. God is more concerned about those things that keep us awake at night, the things that just get stuck in our heads as endless loops. Sometimes those are the things that we need to be forgiven for and occasionally things we need to forgive. It is those things that keep us from fully loving others, ourselves and most importantly God.
Sometimes the hardest sins to forgive are ones that we have committed. Sure, we have asked forgiveness and we know that God technically forgives all sins…but do we really believe that? Remember who Jesus was talking to in this Gospel reading. Jesus was talking to Peter, the disciple who denied him and abandoned him before his crucifixion. Jesus forgave him. Whatever sin we have committed, God can forgive us. What we have to do is believe that God can and will forgive our sins, even the ones we commit 77 times.