My wife makes incredible chicken salad. The ingredients are chicken, mayo, mustard, and unicorn tears. It’s delicious. One evening after having chicken salad for supper Christie gathered the leftovers, put them in the fridge, and said, “I’m going to eat this for lunch tomorrow. Is that ok.” “Of course,” I reply. The next day I come home early for lunch and notice there is a plastic bowl full of chicken salad in the fridge, and I think back to how delicious my wife’s chicken salad is. I take the bowl out of the fridge and proceed to eat all of the leftovers. My wife comes home, we exchange pleasantries, she opens the fridge, and then the conniption began. Christie looked at me with a soul-searing gaze. I returned a confused look followed by a gaping breath of, “I’m so sorry!” Sorry didn’t seem to help. Christie was angry. I then got angry because she was angry. We then had one of the arguments which, when looking back upon it, was completely ridiculous. The argument went from “Why did you eat the chicken salad,” to “You can’t remember anything,” to “Well, let’s just get a label maker and label everything in the fridge with the name and date of who can eat what when.” We went from chicken salad to label maker in 45 seconds. Have you had an argument like that? It took me way too long to realize that it wasn’t about the chicken salad at all, which is why asking for forgiveness for eating the chicken salad didn’t work. You see, the sin was that I wasn’t listening the day before, and not listening is a sure-fire way to communicate that you don’t care. Mistakes do happen. I did not eat the chicken salad with malicious intent, but instead of saying, “I’m sorry I ate the chicken salad,” I should have said, “I’m sorry I wasn’t paying attention to you yesterday.”
Peter asks Jesus an important question—“If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Let’s stay here in Peter’s request for a moment. Forgiveness is a refusal to hurt someone in the way they have hurt you. It does not mean everything is ok. It does not meant to forget what happened. It does not mean you condone the ongoing sin. It means you refuse to be like the person who hurt you. It means you refuse to have her or him have power over you. It means you are no longer held captive by violence or harm. In some cases forgiveness is not possible. In a sermon about loving your enemies in 2007, Dean of Duke University Chapel, Sam Wells, wrote,
“Notice when Jesus gives us a list of seven ways we should behave toward our enemies, forgiveness isn’t one of them. He says do good to them, bless them, pray for them, offer the other cheek, give to them, let them take from you, do not ask for restitution. But he doesn’t say “forgive.” Why not? I think the answer is, because he is talking about hatred and abuse and violence that is still going on. To forgive something that is still going on is a kind of category mistake. Jesus gives us plenty of ways to respond and engage while the hostile and cruel and destructive actions are still going on. But forgiveness has to wait until the activity is over. You can’t forgive something that is still going on, because that seems to be saying that what is going on is the whole story and therefore that it’s somehow ok (Sam Wells, “Love Your Enemies.” Sermon offered at the Duke University Chapel on November 4, 2007).
In cases of violence or abuse, the most loving thing is the sever the relationship in order to come to a place of forgiveness and peace. Yes, we are called to forgive, but our daily prayer is also, “Lead me not into temptation,” and sometimes maintaining a relationship becomes a temptation an abuser cannot resist.
Peter’s question is also poignant because most of the time we enact a selective blindness to the way in which the individual contributes to the conflict. Peter asks, “If another member sins against me.” In other words, he is assuming that it isn’t he who is doing the sinning. Conflict rarely happens in a vacuum. God came down into the garden and said to the man, “What have you done,” he turned and looked to the woman and said, “Look at what you made me do.” Peter assumes in the coming kingdom that he is the one who will be wronged as opposed to one who will need to say, “You know I love you,” for each time he denies Christ. “What am I supposed to do when someone wrongs me,” Peter asks, and I wonder if a better question might be, “When I sin against someone, how do I reconcile with them?”
“Should we forgive seven times?” Peter asks. It does remind us the dawn of Genesis. Seven represents Sabbath and rest and relative completion. Maybe more to the point, seven reminds us of The Jubilee. Deuteronomy 15 says, “Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debt. Every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor.” So, Peter’s suggestion of forgiveness seven times over makes good sense. As a Christian community we should be a walking, living, breathing sign of the year of the Jubilee. Every seven times seven years (now do you see where Jesus is going?) all tribal land is to be reclaimed. Not only is debt to be forgiven, but everything is to be restored. You might imagine that Jesus would reply, “Seven years is a good idea, but I am Jesus and really great at this so I recommend seven times seven years as commanded in the law.” You might even imagine Jesus saying, “Peter, in the coming kingdom there won’t be any sin; therefore there will be no need for forgiveness.” But Jesus does something quite unexpected. Jesus says 70 times seven.
Let’s take a step back to Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 15 goes on to say, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor of your community.’” John 12 records a dinner party in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet and Judas replies, “Woman your fine anointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor. Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe three-hundred silver pieces or more.” Jesus replies, “There will be poor always pathetically struggling, look at the good things you’ve got.” Ok, so that’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Scripture says, “Leave her alone, she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
The costly perfume is seemingly wasted. Forgiving someone 490 times. Feeding 5,000 people. Jesus is not a self-help guru. We taught us to forgive those who have trespassed against us not because is it good for blood pressure or it makes good business sense. Jesus came to reveal what the kingdom of God looks like. It is a place of abundance. It is a place of mercy. It is a place of perpetual forgiveness. How many times has God forgiven me? 490? I hope he’s not counting. I hope my wife isn’t counting. I hope my kids aren’t counting. I hope my parents and friends and colleagues aren’t counting.
Forgiveness is a sign of what it means to be in the Church. The Church exists in the tension of the pain of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. I would love to say in the church there is no need for forgiveness because no one wrongs anyone. But there is pain. There is still hurt. There are severed relationships. Forgiveness means you refuse to perpetuate pain, to answer evil for evil. You refuse to allow the person who has wronged you to maintain any power over you. It is also the difficult work of looking in the mirror to see that there is still pain and anger and hurt that we ourselves have committed. Forgiveness is that Holy Saturday place in which the pain of Good Friday and the freedom of Easter Sunday are held in tension. Forgiveness does not erase pain, but it does mean we are no longer controlled by it?
What does it mean for God to forgive us? It does not mean all things are forgotten. It does not mean the chalkboard is wiped clean. That’s a fine image for Bible School. God is not a washing machine. God does not have amnesia. God offers you a new identity. Forgiveness means that you are no longer bound by the pain you’ve experienced. You are no longer known only by the messes you’ve made. Your identity is not only about the trust that’s been broken. You are a child of God. God will tell you 490 times. God will tell you ever day if he has to. That’s the kingdom. Amen and amen.