by Isaac Villegas
September 14, 2014
Peter asks Jesus, How many times do I have to forgive? It’s a good question, an important one. After someone has wronged you again and again, at some point, don’t you have to be done with him, done with her? At some point, aren’t you justified in rejecting them, in giving up on them, for the sake of your ability to go on with your life, without them, without their sins against you? “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me,” Peter asks, “how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus responds with a story, a parable about the kingdom of heaven, a story about what God’s reign is like, a story about what God is like. The most obvious thing to point out about the story, which I feel silly even mentioning, is that God is about forgiveness. God wants us to relate to one another through forgiveness, to learn how to forgive, to set up our lives in such a way as to make it possible to confront each other and to forgive, to struggle towards mutual forgiveness, to become a people who forgive one another, the church as a society of forgiveness.
That’s the basic point. But what I find most striking, in the passage, is the way Jesus exposes Peter’s narcissism — the way Peter’s first impulse is to think about how he has been wronged, to think about who has sinned against him. He thinks about himself first as the forgiver, not the forgiven; as the victim, not someone with victims. He thinks of himself as someone who has been sinned against, not someone who has sinned against another.
“If my sister or brother sins against me,” he asks Jesus, “how much should I forgive?” And Jesus answers his question with a parable, a story about a servant who is forgiven, and then refuses to forgive someone else.
In the parable, a servant is about to be sold into slavery, him and his wife and their children, because he can’t pay his debts to the king. But the king has mercy on the servant and forgives him; the king releases the servant from his debt. Then, it says, “that same servant,” as he is walking out of the debtor’s prison, he bumps into another servant — and the guy who has just been forgiven a huge debt, grabs the other guy by the throat and demands the money that he’s owed.
The forgiveness he has just received makes no difference for his life, for how he treats others. When he sees his fellow servant, he doesn’t see someone who is also in need of forgiveness, just like he was. When he looks at his fellow servant, all he sees is money, the money he’s owed — all he sees is what the other guy owes him; he has already forgotten that he has just been freed from prison because he has been forgiven; he walks because of someone’s mercy, because of grace.
We live by mercy — at the mercy of others, the forgiveness of others. We know how to forgive, because someone forgave us. We have been shown forgiveness, so we forgive. We grow into our world through forgiveness — by our parents who caught us as children in our silly deceptions, but forgave us; by siblings whom we tormented as we grew up, but forgave us; by friends who forgive us when we hurt them, because they want to remain in relationship with us; by loved ones whom we fail to love as we should, but who love us enough to offer forgiveness.
We have been forgiven, all along the way. Our transgressions are healed by the love of others, by friends and family, by their desire to be with us, to walk with us, to live with us. Forgiveness is a world we grow into, through daily graces, ordinary miracles of reconciliation.
Peter starts in the wrong place, with his question about how many times to forgive. He starts with himself as the king of his world, the one with servants, the one with others who are indebted to him, with others who have wronged him, who have sinned against him. Peter forgets his own debts, his history of sinning against others, and their forgiveness of him.
He forgets that, at the core of who he is, he is indebted to others, indebted to the mercy of others. He doesn’t ask about his need to be forgiven. He doesn’t say, “Lord, if I sin against another member of the church, how often should I be forgiven? As many as seven times?”
No. Instead Peter assumes that he has been wronged, not that he has sinned against others — that he is the one who needs to forgive, not that he needs to be forgiven, or that he has been forgiven already, seven times, that he has been forgiven seventy-seven times.
To start with Peter’s question, to start with your list of people who have sinned against you, to start with your list of grievances, is to forget the history of forgiveness that has made you who we are, the forgiveness that has sustained you in your relationships, in your friendships, the forgiveness that has made you human, a social creature, as you learn how to be with others, always dependent on someone’s forgiveness and mercy, dependent on grace, because we have a tendency to offend one another, a tendency to consider our own needs as more important than another’s needs.
To be in relationship, to be with others, to be a church means that, not only do we care for someone enough to forgive them, but we also care about someone enough to ask for forgiveness, to put ourselves at the mercy of another, to let ourselves be dependent on their forgiveness of us, to acknowledge that we are indebted to others.
A life of forgiveness — that’s the gospel. We’ve been invited to live in God’s forgiveness, to receive God’s forgiveness, to let God’s forgiveness flow through us, to open us up, again and again, to the possibility of communion. Forgiveness is the power of God, alive in us, enabling us to be together, even when our conflicts exhaust us, even when we exhaust each other.
And all of this is what it means to be a peace church, to be committed to God’s peace, not only as we think about war, but as we think about our relationships, our lives at home and at work, with our friends and with our family. To be for God’s peace means that we are committed to forgiveness as a way of life, an openness not only to forgive our enemies, but to be forgiven by them, to ask ourselves how we have contributed to the hostility between us.
What have I done to you? How have I sinned against you? Will you forgive me, seven times, seventy-seven times?