Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
The prayer also teaches us that if we’re to be forgiven, then we can be forgivers. The one who has experienced forgiveness is the one best able to forgive. Our forgiveness begins as a response to our being forgiven. It’s not so much an act of generosity towards whoever has hurt us, as an act of gratitude toward our forgiving God, and that makes forgiveness neither easy nor cheap.
In forgiving us, God is refusing to let our sin have the last word; in challenging us to forgive others, Jesus is not saying that the injustice we have suffered is inconsequential, but refuses to let sin have the last word. Jesus is not trying to produce a set of victims who may be victimised over and over again. Rather, in challenging us to forgive, Jesus is inviting us to turn the world around, to throw a spanner in the eternal wheel of retribution and vengeance: not to suffer the hurt, lick our wounds, and lie in wait for the day when we shall at last be able to return the blow. Instead it’s a challenge to turn things around.
The courage to forgive one another begins in the humility engendered by the realisation that we have been forgiven. Forgiveness is a gift first offered to us, before we can offer it to others. When Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-times-seven times, Jesus had already forgiven him seventy-times-seven trillion times.
In our forgiving and being forgiven we’re a part of God’s defeat of the powers that would otherwise dominate our lives. If you’ve ever been forgiven by someone, you know the way in which that forgiveness frees you, in a way that is close to divine. If you have ever forgiven someone who wronged you, you know how such forgiveness is not cheap, and how forgiving someone who has wronged you is a way of breaking the hold of that wrong upon your life.
Merciful and compassionate God, thank you that you do not treat me as my sins deserve. Thank you that you do not go on accusing me when I confess my sin. Help me to know, accept, and feel your forgiveness and to be forgiving in turn. Root out the feelings of fear, mistrust, suspicion and unease and may your strong, compassionate love flow into and through all my relationships. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins is Minister of the Spire Church, Farnham, Elstead URC, and serves as Clerk of the General Assembly.