“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” That was Jesus’ advice to his disciples on how to treat a member of the church who had sinned against them, but refused to be reconciled. We heard those words from Jesus in last week’s Gospel lesson. Treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector. Two thousand years down the road, this advice is pretty hard to understand, but even as Jesus said them, Peter was pretty sure they were a trick. I imagine Peter standing there, counting on his fingers and scratching his head. “So, first, you call them out on their sin. If they don’t listen to you, second, take one or two others and try again. If they still won’t listen, third, take it to the whole community. If they won’t listen then, let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector?”
Peter knew there was something fishy going on. It was well known that Jesus had a habit of hanging out with sinners and tax collectors. Heck, our Gospel writer, Matthew, was both before he became a disciple. Jesus had healed the servant of a Gentile Centurion. He had his heart changed by a Gentile woman of Canaanite descent. Treating someone like a Gentile or a tax collector sounded an awful lot like continuing to love them, despite their sinfulness. Peter was pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t suggesting a “three strikes and you’re out” policy for his disciples, but he also wasn’t sure just how much forgiveness Jesus was suggesting. Wanting to get it right, Peter presses the matter a bit in today’s Gospel. Three strikes didn’t seem like quite enough, so Peter took to Jesus what he thought was a preposterous idea. “Jesus, I know you just told us how to handle a fellow disciple who sins against us, but really, how many times should I forgive someone? Is seven times enough?”
Not three. Not seven. But seventy-seven. Or, better yet, seventy times seven. I can see Peter’s eyes wide open and his mouth agape as Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. Here a servant who is forgiven a debt of sixty million denarii, roughly 3.5 billion dollars, immediately refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow slave who owed him six thousand dollars. Not three. Not seven. Not seventy-seven or seventy times seven or even sixty million. Jesus makes it clear to Peter that the call of Christians to forgive isn’t about keeping a bigger ledger than everyone else, but rather, it is about forgiving extravagantly, as we have been forgiven.
This over-the-top understanding of forgiveness shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. Neither was it particularly surprising to Peter. It had likely been a year, or more, since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, but I’m sure Peter quickly remembered that conversation. Since we use the Lord’s Prayer here every Sunday, you, too, are likely very familiar with how Jesus summed up the most important things we should pray for. When you pray, Jesus told his disciples, pray for the Kingdom of God and the will of God to be present on earth, for God to provide enough for the day at hand, for protection from temptation and deliverance from evil, and for the grace to forgive as you have been forgiven. We who have been forgiven our sixty million or so debts and trespasses, need to be willing to forgive just as much.
This is, of course, wildly frustrating and seemingly impossible. Forgiveness is hard work, because, as my friend Ashley Freeman says, forgiveness is work that I didn’t sign up for that I have to do because of something someone else did. When you put it that way, “three strikes and you’re out” sounds plenty generous. Which takes us back to the question about treating folks like Gentiles and tax collectors. What did Jesus mean by that? How do we square the call to prodigal forgiveness with the truth that we are not meant to be doormats to abusive patterns of behavior? I think the key lies in the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive another member of the church, the Greek word translated as “forgive” literally means “to let go.” Loosing the sins of another is a common Biblical image for forgiveness that continues to resonate even today. According to the online counseling site BetterHelp.com, forgiveness is “the decision to overcome the pain inflicted by another person by letting go of anger, resentment, shame, and other emotions associated with an injustice, and by treating the offender with compassion, even though they are not entitled to it.” I find this image of letting go helpful. It reminds me of one of the tricks I’ve learned to overcome my fear of public speaking. Rather than allowing my mind race with anxious thoughts, if I’m feeling nervous, just before I step up to speak, I clench my hand into a tight fist. Very quickly, my mind recognizes something is physically wrong with me, and my attention is drawn away from the fear of public speaking and toward my fist. As long as I’m clenching a tight fist, my mind is fully focused there. By the time I let go, I’m standing behind the podium and my fear has gone away.
Holding on to anger, resentment, and bitterness is like clenching a tight fist forever. I might be able to focus on other things for a short period of time, here and there, but always my attention is brought back to the closed fist, to the thing that is wrong, to the hurt I’m holding onto. Forgiveness as letting go is the intentional action of opening up and releasing the very real and very understandable feelings of anger, resentment, and shame that go along with being sinned against. In letting go, you are able to better see the one who as sinned against you as a human being, flawed just like you are, and to have compassion on them, or as Jesus said it, to treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector. All of which is possible and necessary even if the other person never admits their fault, never asks for forgiveness, and if reconciliation isn’t in the cards.
It might go without saying, but forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Reconciliation requires forgiveness, but the restoration of a relationship isn’t the goal of the forgiveness process. Sometimes, the sin is just too great, or too long standing, for the relationship to continue the way it had in the past. Sometimes, the offending party has no intention to change their ways, offers no remorse or contrition, or never intends to make things right. Reconciliation requires both parties to do a great deal of work. Forgiveness is work that must be done alone. The goal of forgiveness is simply to be open to the possibility of a new future no longer defined by the anger, resentment, and pain of the past. Done well, it will allow us to let go of the pain, but it doesn’t mean the sin is forgotten.
Peter was right. Jesus was playing a bit of trick. By telling his disciples to treat someone like Gentile or tax collector, Jesus wasn’t telling them to cast them aside or to hold onto the wrong. Instead, Jesus was calling them to forgiveness, even without the possibility of reconciliation. He was inviting them to let go of the hurt and the anger, to offer compassion, especially when the other isn’t entitled to it, and, in time, to move forward, whether or not the relationship could ever be put back together. Two thousand years later, we’re still pretty good at hurting each other, and the image of forgiveness as letting go remains sage wisdom. Three. Seven. Seventy times seven. It doesn’t matter. Forgiveness isn’t fun. It is work you didn’t sign up for. But it is imperative for a future in which the Kingdom of God is made real here on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.