Traditional Christian teachings affirm that sinners can be redeemed; that our wrongdoing can serve as a lesson and become an opportunity for us to grow into better people. It is a belief that shines with radiant hope and healing. But — as always — there is more to the story.
The Gospel of Matthew 18:21-35, as interpreted by Deborah Beach Giordano
Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, if another member of our community sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
Jesus replied, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"Imagine that an IRS agent discovered an error on a tax form from 1992. At the time it was only a hundred dollars — but over the years the fines had increased the amount due to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There was no way the man could come up with that much money. The tax collector prepared the order to have the man's wages garnished, his bank accounts frozen, and his possessions sold.
In despair the man fell on his knees before him and begged, 'Give me a chance! Let me have time to arrange for a loan, and I will pay everything I owe.'
Taking pity on him, the tax collector promised to write off the amount and let him go free.
That same day, as he was having lunch, the man saw a friend that he'd loaned a hundred dollars. He grabbed the fellow by the shirt and shook him, "Where's that money you owe me? I want it now!"
Astonished, the fellow stammered out, "I'll get it for you soon. Just give me a little time."
"No way!" he shouted, "You bring me that money today or I'll take you to court and get every dime you owe me and then some!"
Sitting in a corner booth, the IRS agent watched with dismay. After finishing his meal, he walked over to where the man was sitting, savoring a glass of wine.
The tax collector sat down across from him and said, 'You heartless creature! I forgave you all that you owed because you pleaded with me. Why wouldn't you show mercy to your friend — just as I did for you?'
Outraged, the IRS agent went back to his office and handed the file over to the Collections Department — who would make certain the man did not rest until he had paid his entire debt.
Now, how do you think our Just and Fair God will feel toward you, if you don't sincerely forgive your brother or sister?"
Forgiveness... Most of us feel a pang of guilt whenever the subject comes up.
It’s something we know we’re supposed to do.
But it isn’t easy.
Human beings are creatures who feel: our souls are sensitive, and we experience hurts — both physical and emotional. And we’re equipped with excellent memories — especially where injuries are concerned. When someone has hurt, insulted, or been unkind to us, we remember it; and we will continue to remember it for days, weeks, months — even years afterward.
In the conversation between Jesus and Peter, we hear only of the call to forgive (and forgive and forgive and forgive). We don’t hear Peter’s response. Perhaps he doesn’t say anything more. But I wonder. Does he walk away from this encounter doubting that he can ever live up to Jesus’ standard? To forgive someone again and again — no matter how many times he mistreats us? Who among us could do such a thing?
Does that mean that none of us are suited to follow the Lord?
Perhaps it will help if we consider what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say: “Forgive and forget.” That would surely be an impossible task. And it wouldn’t be wise, either; to forget would be to leave ourselves at risk. If this other individual is a Repeat Offender, if, for example, she has lied to us on several occasions, it would be foolish and possibly dangerous to put our trust in what she says.
On the other hand, when does someone merit another chance? If someone has stolen from the Poor Box, should he ever be responsible for finances again?
And it isn’t clear whether how far this forgiveness is to extend. Does it only apply to those who have apologized for what they’ve done? Or are we supposed to forgive anyone and everyone who has sinned against us — regardless whether they’ve apologized or even recognized that they’ve hurt us in some way?
It is easier to imagine forgiving someone who has at least admitted his wrongdoing. If a person realizes that they have hurt us and asked our forgiveness, we can begin to hope for reformed behavior: that he won’t do it again.
Tradition teaches that true repentance comes in several stages. It begins with what is called “conviction”: the person’s recognition — heartfelt and personal — that he has sinned; followed by confession: the admission of this wrongdoing to others, which may be done privately, but which may merit a public announcement. Next is accepting responsibility for the results of sinful actions — including, whenever possible, restitution to those who have been harmed. Lastly, there is to be a commitment to avoid repeating this behavior. Evidence of a reformed character should be visible in the conduct of the person’s life.
This 4-Step program affirms that sinners can be redeemed; that our wrongdoing can serve as a lesson and become an opportunity for us to grow into better people. It is a belief that shines with radiant hope and healing.
But things don’t always work out that way. Those who have sinned against us may go through their lives blithely unaware of what they have done. Or they may be solidly in denial, unwilling to admit their wrongdoing. Then what?
It would be, as we’ve said, unhealthy and possibly dangerous to trust someone who has repeatedly demonstrated that she cannot be trusted. We have seen that mistake writ large in the continuing scandal of the Roman Catholic Church, which repeatedly allowed pedophile priests to serve in positions which put them in contact with children. That is surely not what Jesus meant when he spoke of forgiving “seven times seventy.”
What, then, is the meaning of this call to forgiveness? Surely we are not supposed to “forgive” those who prey upon the vulnerable, who exploit the weak, who kill, maim, and destroy.
Forgiveness does not trump personal safety, or the safety of the community. It doesn’t override the call for justice.
Forgiveness is not a forgetting, nor permission for evil to be perpetuated. It doesn’t ignore the harm that has been done, or the pain that has been endured. It isn’t a Free Pass for those who have done wrong.
For those who have sincerely repented, our forgiveness offers them an opportunity to grow into the people God designed them to be. It provides the possibility of a new beginning, a chance to make amends and perhaps develop stronger and better relationships than they had before.
Our forgiveness gives us the opportunity to see how lives can change; that reform is possible, that Christ’s healing grace is still at work in our world.
Forgiveness is a great and beautiful blessing — to us and to those we forgive.
But what of those who do not notice or care that they have sinned against us? Jesus didn’t make our forgiveness conditional: he didn’t tell Peter: “you only have to forgive those who repent.” He said “forgive.” Period.
That is a much more difficult task; it requires that we overlook our need to have our hurts recognized, it demands a forgiveness that has not been asked for. It eliminates the “instructive value” of a reformed sinner — which effectively removes our justification for forgiving.
Can forgiveness lead to redemption if the sinner has not repented? Is Jesus’ instruction to forgive — no matter what — a “deal breaker”: does it make it just too hard for us to be true Christians?
We will consider these questions at length in our next Reflection.
Virtual hugs and real-time blessings,
How many times have you forgiven “those who have sinned against you”? What were the “sins”? Did anything change as the result of your forgiveness?