Our passage from Matthew this week continues with that four-letter word we like to call discipline. Recall last week, after the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus gives us clear instructions about how we should deal with one another when one of us sins against another. This week, the focus shifts a bit. Last week, we were instructed how to correct our brothers and sisters who have wandered astray, even to the point of excluding them from the Eucharist. In light of all that, Peter’s question probably seems reasonable to you. “Well, Lord, how many times do I have to forgive someone?”
Peter, of course, understood his question to be generous beyond any reasonable expectation. Most Jews believed that they only had an obligation to forgive someone three times or fewer, depending on the school of thought and the “cliff notes” version of the Scriptures which informed their study. The thought was that once a person had been forgiven once, twice, or three times (depending upon the teaching), their willingness to recommit the same sin was evidence of the fact that their prior repentance was not really repentance. In other words, they said they were sorry, but they really did not mean it, as evidenced by their continued behavior. Can you imagine how hostile some marriages must have been? How hard must it have been to keep a true friend? So, when Peter asks the question of Jesus, he is more than doubling the cultural expectation he has been taught. Peter’s offer, “as many 7 times,” seems very merciful.
Jesus, of course, knows our hearts. He knows our proclivity to recommit the same sins over and over and over again. Perhaps, sitting here, you have a sin or two that plagues you. No matter how hard you try not to do that particular sin, it comes back. You fall prey to temptation and hurt someone else and dishonor God. Sometimes, like an addiction, it is unintentional. We do the sin because, quite simply, it feels good. Sometimes, we do a particular sin because we fall prey to the mindset that we want to get even. Occasionally, though, we sin entirely unintentionally. We are sometimes just blind to our actions and our consequences. Does this make us bad people? Sure, before we meet Christ on our road to salvation. All sin separates us from the love of God and leads to death. But what about afterwards? What about the sin that plagues us for years and years after our baptism, our confirmation, our renewal of vows, or our simple determination not to commit a particular sin? What happens to us who claim to be Christian and yet still sin?
In this passage, Jesus reminds us that, as His body here on earth, we have two obligations. First of all, whenever we sin, the solution is easy. We are called to repent of our behavior and to ask God for the grace to avoid that particular temptation. That’s pretty much it. No matter how “bad” the sin, we are called simply to repent. He finished His work on the cross knowing that we would commit whatever sins which plague us. Secondly, and more properly the focus of this pericope, we are called to accept the repentance and show mercy. What makes it harder is that we are not called to forgive another a mere 7 times, as Peter suggests, but rather all the time. You and I are called to be people who incarnate the message of mercy from our God. Yes, I know some translations say 77 times and others say 7 times 70 times—the Greek could mean either. But the number 7 holds a special place in God’s economy. It is the number of completion. On the seventh day, He rested. The Resurrection of our Lord occurred on the seventh day, which is why we see groups such as 8th day reminding us that creation is being perfected in Christ. We are called to forgive all those who repent until their sanctification is complete. All those who truly repent, including ourselves.
Forgiveness is not easy, to be sure. We have far too many opportunities to be hurt in this world. Yet Jesus commands forgiveness on the part of His disciples, He does not suggest it. Harder still, He insists that forgiveness must come from the heart, not just the mouth. Just as all the evil acts come from the heart, so too do those virtues which He values. Such mercy and graciousness, of course, flows from a knowledge of our own behavior and from what Jesus did that Maundy Thursday through Holy Saturday. How many times do you and I sin (we think in private), repent, and then expect or hope for Him to forgive us, all the while clinging to His cross or His blood? That same hope must be provided to others! As disciples who follow Him, we recognize that any hurt against us is a hurt against Him. Any embarrassment we suffer, He suffers. Any pain that is inflicted upon us, He feels. Why do you think His passion was so graphic? He took all the punishment you and I would love to give when lashing out against those who sinned against us when He went to the cross to die for us? You think the scourging felt good? You think He liked the spittle? The mocking? The punching? The death? When Scripture claims that He took the punishment for our sins, it means that He took the punishment for all our sins, both those we commit and those committed against us. How we deal with sin, for Him, is a matter of eternal consequence.
We are called to show forth forgiveness from our heart because we have been forgiven much? Each and every one of us gathered here today is a recipient of that mercy. Better still, those not here can be a recipient, too. Even those who have harmed us greatly. Brothers and sisters, what grudges are you holding? What hardness of heart prevents you from forgiving someone or many someone's who sinned against you? Take this time, this day when we celebrate Healing Sunday and we remember all those who died in an act that many in our country would consider unforgiveable, and begin the work of forgiveness from your heart. If it is not yet within you to forgive from the heart, pray the Lord to give you that grace to forgive. Help me, Lord, to forgive that person for the hurt, the pain, and the embarrassment. Help me to see them as You see them, just as You see me. Pray that He open your eyes and ears to see and hear how often you have sinned against Him, and ask that He begin the process of circumcising your heart, that His mercy, His forgiveness might shine forth in your life!