What does it really mean to forgive someone? We often learn about it as a practice from a very young age, being taught from a very young age to say “I’m sorry,” and then “It’s ok. I forgive you” when something happens that hurts another person. But, as we get older and life gets more complicated, we discover there is far more to it than your cart bumping into someone else at the grocery store or even taking someone else’s toy away in the sandbox. The truth is that life sometimes hurts; not just in general, but in specific, tangible ways that cause us real harm, emotionally, mentally, and even physically. And when we are hurt, or when someone we love is injured, forgiveness is often the farthest thing from our first response. Sure, we hear the countless instructions to forgive, but when it comes down to putting them into practice, we balk. Perhaps because we don’t quite know what forgiveness really looks like, or how exactly we are to go about it.
That essentially is the question Peter is asking Jesus at the onset of today’s gospel lesson. His suggestion of seven times is no accident – that is the biblical signifier of what is complete or perfect. Peter, not surprisingly, wants to get it right. He’s not asking the Rabbi what the bare minimum requirement is to pass the class; Peter wants to ace the exam with a perfect score. Jesus replies, though, with an astronomical figure – seventy-times seven. This isn’t just math to get him to the number 490. It is the response that forgiveness requires something even beyond perfection. Let that sink in for a minute. The goal is the perfection of perfection; infinity times infinity. As Lewis Donelson puts it:
it must be beyond counting. Forgiveness becomes an absolute[i].
No wonder we have such a hard time doing it! However, there is hope in this initial response from Jesus; he indicates that forgiveness is not so much about a check-list or sticker chart or final exam, but instead is about ongoing discipleship. Put another way, forgiveness must become a way of life.
One illustration of this can be seen in the Amish community. Typically, when we think about the Amish, our first images are of buggies, quilts, jams, and barn-raisings, or perhaps what we’ve gleaned from a reality television series; but an even better marker of Amish life and culture is seen in their practice of faith.
Amish people are likely to say that they are simply trying to be obedient to Jesus Christ, who commanded his followers to do so many peculiar things, such as love, bless, and forgive their enemies. This is not a picture of Amish life that can easily be reproduced on a postcard from Amish Country; in fact, it can be painted only in the grit and grim of daily life[ii].
Almost 11 years ago, on October 2, 2006, tragedy came to Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania as a gunman entered the local school, leading to a hostage situation that killed five schoolgirls and left five others seriously wounded. It was a devastating time that rocked this small, close-knit community and brought about intense media coverage at the time. Almost as shocking as the violence, though, was the response from the families and community of the victims.
Even as outsiders were responding with compassion for the Amish community in the wake of the shooting, the Amish themselves were doing another kind of work. Softly, subtly, and quietly, they were beginning the difficult task of forgiveness. . . . Within a few hours of the shooting, some Amish people were already reaching out to the killer’s family[iii].
Some went to find the gunman’s wife, children, and extended family, offering words of sympathy and love and forgiveness. As cameras and bright lights shone in field interviews and questions came from tv hosts, the refrain was similar: the Amish insisted that they forgave the gunman almost immediately. A few days later, the community showed up at the gunman’s funeral, and even reached out with financial support for his family. Several weeks later they met with his wife and other members of his family at a local firehouse. In each of these, and the relationship-building instances that followed, the Amish community modeled an authentic and powerful witness of what forgiveness looks like. It almost sounds too good to be true; inconceivable to even those who consider themselves faithful Christians.
In response, a trio of professors worked to explore more about the notion of forgiveness and grace in the Amish community and the implications for the rest of us, interviewing dozens of Amish people from Nickel Mines and beyond. They shared this work in a book titled Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, which inspired a Lifetime Movie a few years later. It’s worth a read or view as we consider our own theological understanding of forgiveness. One of their underlying questions was, given the importance of forgiveness in the Christian tradition,:
Did the keen public interest in the grace of the Amish stem from the fact that their forgiveness differed from other understanding of forgiveness, or did it arise from the Amish community’s willingness to practice what others only preach?[iv]
As they spoke with the Amish about forgiveness, they found a strong rooting in the community’s belief that forgiveness was an expectation for what it means to follow Jesus Christ. The most prominent citation given from scripture was the parable we read today from Matthew 18, often known as the parable of the unforgiving or unmerciful servant. It is a parable of extremes. Just as Peter and Jesus used big, epic terms in their exchange in the preceding verses, Jesus introduces characters with larger-than-life debts and responses. The concept of ten thousand talents was astronomical. Both “ten thousand” and “talent” were words that were the biggest units in Greek at the time. It would be akin to saying “a million bajillion” or some other inconceivable number. The amount that the servant owed was absurd. The concept of a master forgiving that amount of debt? Also absurd. Thus, the illustration shows a measure of grace in abundance. It is a seventy-times-seven kind of forgiveness of debt. In contrast, of course, is the response of the servant to the one who owes him a debt, comparatively miniscule at only a hundred denarii (a number you could wrap your head around – a denarii is a day’s labor). While we might expect a repeat of the grace exhibited to him, instead we see quite the opposite. And the lord summons the servant to make it clear that this isn’t how it works. Mercy, and grace, and forgiveness, necessitates the same.
“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” These well-known words from the English poet Alexander Pope strike many as the right way to think about forgiveness: as something good but almost impossible to do[v].
In the face of tragedy, and other instances of loss and pain both intentional and accidental, the Amish seem to do the impossible. As the professors discovered in their research, it is largely because, for the Amish, forgiveness is a way of life. It is some of what marks them as a community, and is practiced in smaller ways, which makes the practice of it on such epic levels not as outlandish as it may seem. This fits with the understanding of the pattern that Jesus gave to Peter, a repeated, ongoing forgiveness, seventy-times-seven, might lead to an embodiment of it even in the most trying of circumstances. In order to embody this radical way of living, it might be good to try to name what exactly forgiveness is.
Forgiveness, on its most basic level, is a letting go. Many offer that it is a choice that we make, regardless of remorse shown. It is both psychological and social; it happens both internally within ourselves and externally as we engage with other people. Presbyterian minister, writer, and retreat leader Marjorie Thompson writes:
To forgive is to make a conscious choice to release the person who has wounded us from the sentence of our judgment, however justified that judgment may be. It represents a choice to leave behind our resentment and desire for retribution, however fair such punishment may seem. . . Forgiveness means the power of the original wound’s power to hold us trapped is broken[vi].
Forgiveness is freeing, for more than just the one who might receive it. It is freeing for the one who does the forgiving. The benefits continue, too. Research shows that:
forgiveness is good for the person who offers it, reducing “anger, depression, anxiety, and fear” and affording “cardiovascular and immune system benefits.[vii]”
But, as with most things that are ultimately good for us, it’s often not the most attractive option unless we make efforts for it to become our pattern. Our nature seems to be to get sucked into our own anger and the need for revenge to settle the score. Such an attitude breeds resentment, which is when we re-live that anger over and over again. Incidentally, that’s one of the signs that you haven’t really forgiven – if you are re-living all of those emotions over and over again. Forgiveness calls for a release of those things that bind us. This is what makes it such a theologically important concept – when we let go of that resentment and anger and relinquish the grudges we have, we open up space – space to experience all of the other emotions present in our lives; space to experience grief if we need to grieve, joy and hope the in promises of a brighter tomorrow, and time to work through other things that prevent us from living the lives God intends for us. Most of all, forgiveness offers us the space to experience God’s grace and love more fully.
Let me be clear, though: forgiveness is not just “getting over it.” It is not pretending that some wrong did not occur or forgetting that it happened or acting like the harm done is ok by condoning or excusing it. And it most certainly does not mean putting ourselves in positions where we continue to subject ourselves to harm. “Seventy-times-seven” is not meant to be a number of times which anyone must endure abuse at the hands of another. Rather, forgiveness is naming the offense and declaring that it should not be repeated. Forgiveness is also declaring that the offense will no longer take hold in our lives any more. Forgiveness proclaims that mercy is what will define us.
I think that’s what Jesus was hoping for in his conversation with Peter and the following parable; that the lives of his disciples would be marked by mercy. That’s the example we find in the story of Joseph from Genesis, who even in the face of immense pain – his brothers’ violence and selling him into slavery – would not let pain or violence be what defined him. Forgiveness can certainly open the door to reconciliation and the restoring of relationships. In the instance of the tragedy in Nickel Mines, it did just that, as the community came together and continued to be in relationship with the gunman’s family, who they saw as victims as well. Such a move, though, can only come with a renewal of trust, which may not always be possible. If you aren’t able to get to that point of reconciliation, right now, or ever, that is ok. Focus your work on that of forgiveness – it may be more than enough for you to handle. Even the Amish admitted that it was hard, excruciating work, repeating the refrain:
“We try to forgive, but we are human too.[viii]”
Forgiveness calls attention to our humanness at its most human. It reduces us to our most base of instincts, and challenges us with the hard work of responding in the way of Christ instead. Examples like that of the Amish, or the lessons taught by Jesus, can be daunting. They are big. Larger than seems possible. But we need such big images to begin to wrap our heads around the nature of God. And such seemingly unreachable examples might just be what we need to begin to take even a little step in the direction forgiveness calls. One opportunity at a time, then seven, then seventy times seven. May we, little by little, move more into the ways of God’s mercy. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
September 17, 2017
———————————————————————————————————[i] Lewis R. Donelson, “Exegetical Perspective: Matthew 18:21-35,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
[ii] Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007).
[vi] Marjorie J. Thompson, “Moving toward Forgiveness,” Weavings, March-April 1992, 19, as quoted by Charlotte Dudley Cleghorn, “Pastoral Perspective: Matthew 18:21-35,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
[vii] Clinical research of Psychologists Robert D. Enright and Everett L. Worthington Jr., as reported in Amish Grace.
[viii] Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt, David L. Weaver-Zercher, Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007).