Matthew 18:23-24
May 9, 2021
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

Before preaching today’s sermon, I want to make a note on the translation I used.  Most modern translations quote Jesus as saying that you should forgive seventy-seven times,” but as a child I learned seven times seventy times which is based on an alternative manuscript.  I’ve always preferred the alternative version because I think it sounds more poetic, but either translation boils down to the same thing — a lot!

What is the best, most wonderful, most uplifting teaching of Christianity?  It is, in the words of the old gospel song, “all our sins are washed away, we’ve been redeemed.”  There is no karma in Christianity; instead, Jesus promises that the worst thing you have done can be forgiven, that your slate can be wiped clean so that you can make a fresh start and move forward into a new life without the past constantly dragging you back to that old self that went so far astray.  This amazing grace is very good news for those of us who have made a mess of things and want to change.  It gives hope to those of us who need to be unshackled from our guilt in order to move forward into a new future.  And even for those whose sin is of the more ordinary kind — the hurts we inflict and the mistakes we make by simply being fallible human beings — the good news of God’s forgiveness frees us from the self-flagellation of dwelling on our imperfections.  To know that we can be forgiven — that we are forgiven by a most holy and loving God — enables us to focus our energy on the joys and needs of today instead of constantly being consumed by the errors of yesterday.  The good news that we are forgiven people is the best, most wonderful, most uplifting teaching of Christianity.

Now, what is the most difficult, most demanding, and sometimes most excruciating teaching of Christianity?  It is that we are called to be forgiving people.  We, who are forgiven are called to be forgiving.  Christ says that just as God has forgiven us, so too, we are to open our hearts to those who have hurt us, to pray for our enemies, and to let go of our right to seek vengeance against those who have wronged us.  We are to forgive others as we have been forgiven.   

While we open our arms wide to receive the forgiveness which God bestows upon us in divine mercy, when Christ calls us to extend that same forgiveness to others, we pull our arms back, clench our fists, and grit our teeth.  

“You cannot be serious, Jesus,” we grumble.  “Do you know what he did to me?  Why should I let her get away with hurting me like that?”

We are willing to accept our own forgiveness without explanation but when Christ calls us to show forgiveness to others, we are suddenly full of questions and arguments, protesting that such a show of mercy is an impossible command and frankly, just doesn’t make any sense.

Our struggle to forgive as we have been forgiven has a long legacy that goes back to the disciples themselves.  When Peter asked Jesus, “How many times should I forgive my brother?” I suspect that Peter wasn’t really interested in the answer but was asking the question in order to prove his godliness to Jesus because he didn’t wait for Jesus’ answer before suggesting one of his own.

“How often should we forgive, Jesus?  Seven times?” Peter said as his chest swelled with pride at his amazing capacity for mercy.  After all, everyone knew that compassionate people might forgive a wrong done to them at least once, or even twice, but seven times was unthinkable.  Only a saint could manage to forgive seven times. 

Jesus, however, came back with an unbelievable retort:  “You should forgive seven times seventy times,” and with that number, Jesus changed forgiveness from something you bestow on special occasions to a lifetime vocation.  Seven times seventy times is supposed to boggle your mind.  Seven times seventy times is such a big number that Jesus knows you can’t keep track of it in your head like a tally sheet.  When Jesus told Peter that we are supposed to forgive seven times seventy times, he wiped the smug smile off of Peter’s face because Peter realized that to forgive seven times seventy times changed forgiveness from an occasional saintly decision to a daily lifestyle. 

Seven times seventy times is the number of times a batter in a batting cage practices hitting a ball to left field.  Seven times seventy times is the number of times an art student draws the proportions of the human face.  Seven times seventy times is the number of times your piano teacher tells you to play the E minor scale over the next month.  Seven times seventy times is the number of times my fingers have formed a G chord on my guitar, or you practiced your three point turns before your driver’s test.  It’s the number of times you have done White Crane Spreads Its Wings in Tai Chi, or that you balanced on your bicycle when you were learning to ride it.  We do things seven times seventy times so that what we are learning becomes so instinctive that we can do it without thinking.  When a tennis player sees a ball hurtling toward them across the court, they don’t stop to consider, “Should I use my forehand or backhand?  How hard should I hit the ball?  What angle does my hand need to be if I want it to get across the net?”  By the time they puzzle all of that out, the ball would be long since gone.  Instead, the tennis player relies on the muscle memory that they developed through constant practice.  They swing their racket in an instinctual reaction honed, they hope, to perfection through 7 times 70 times of daily drills.

With forgiveness, we too can get our minds so twisted around all of the questions about forgiveness that we end up never forgiving anyone because every situation elicits an internal emotional debate about whether to forgive on that particular occasion.  Jesus’ demand that we forgive 7 times 70 times is a commandment to work on developing our muscle memory for forgiveness — to practice it so often that it becomes instinctual and we can do it even while our minds our engaged in debate about it.  Maybe we haven’t settled all of the questions that forgiveness is raising at that moment, but in the meantime, we’ve instinctually hit the ball and forgiveness is being executed. 

Jesus makes it clear in his response to Peter that forgiveness is the mark of the Christian life and we need to get it down deep in our muscles so that it becomes part of who we are as Christians.  People should look at us and say, “I can tell they are a Christian because of the way they forgive.”

Jesus knew that the gospel he was preaching and that he would give his life for, was a gospel that promises the possibility of new life, and the path to that new life is directly through forgiveness.  You cannot know new life when the old you is still hanging around and so God forgives us our sins in order to clear the way for a fresh start and we forgive others their sins in order to free us to the possibility of new way of being.

In his book, Living Faith, Jimmy Carter tells the story of a family from Olympia, Washington who was selected to receive a house from Habitat for Humanity.  Up until their selection, the family had been living in an abandoned automobile.  Carter writes, “One of their children was an 8 year old boy who was very excited about getting a new house.  When the family was chosen, he jumped up and down and shouted, ‘We won!  We won!’  After the Habitat for Humanity home was finished and the family moved in, the little boy attended a different school.  He had always been in a slow learner’s class but when he moved, his records were lost and he was put in a regular class by mistake.  No one noticed the error and at the end of the first half year, his lowest grade was a B.  Now he is still learning with the smartest of students.”

A new house, a new school, and no record of the past — the boy was free to become a new person.  So too, forgiveness — the willingness to lose the records of the past, the accounting of hurt, of wrong committed, of error and disregard, of bitter words said and harmful hostile actions – our willingness to lose the records of those who have harmed us and step into tomorrow with a clean slate between us can bring change because it allows others the freedom to become new people in the future unburdened by our expectations of the past.  And even if our forgiveness of that person doesn’t change them, our ability to forgive them will change us.  The author Lewis Smedes said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”  

The Greek word which Jesus used that we translate forgiveness literally means “letting go” or “sending away.”  When we translate forgiveness as “letting go and sending away,” we say nothing about the rightness or wrongness of the actions of that person.  We aren’t necessarily pardoning their act or excusing it; we are letting it go.  We are making the choice to no longer to live in the misery and hurt of that event but rather to send it away from us and move forward.  So much of our difficulty in practicing forgiveness is that we confuse forgiveness with tolerance.  To forgive someone is not to say that what their behavior is justified.  To forgive someone doesn’t mean that you remain in an abusive situation as if what they are doing to you doesn’t matter.  Forgiveness doesn’t even necessarily mean that it will be followed by reconciliation. Forgiveness means letting go of the past so that you can move into a new future.  Just as God’s forgiveness has created a way forward for us, so too our forgiveness offers others a new place where change might occur; and whether they step into that space or not, by letting go of their wrongs, by sending away the hurt and saying to that pain, “I don’t need you to hang around here any more and clutter up my heart,” our forgiveness will cleanse us of the past which may be keeping us from becoming new people. 

And any one who has ever tried to let go of a hurt knows full well that it will take a lot of work and a lot of practice before we get there.  It may take seven times seventy times before we are able to say with confidence that we are free.