Fool Me Once, Forgive Seventy-Seven Times
21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“To err is human; to forgive, divine” ~ Alexander Pope
My father-in-law rose through the ranks from mason to managing the construction of skyscrapers and at least one concert hall. Late in life, as he lay in his hospital bed, he was troubled by something. Was it an issue with finances or family? Was it the state of world politics? No, it was that he could see a brick wing of the hospital and some of the courses of bricks were out of level.
After years of laying a level to check that a job was done right, he had trained his eye to a point that impressed his co-workers. One of them told of a time that he stopped while driving past and called a foreman over. “The finial up there on top of that column isn’t level,” Roy said, pointing. “We checked it.” “Check it again.” So, they checked it again and found that Roy was right.
It is hard to imagine being so attuned to level and plumb that every architectural element that was out of kilter was offensive to you.
In one way, being an idealist is similar to being a master mason. Idealism can be a blessing. Our vision of what ought to be is strong. We have ideals to guide us in our personal lives.
But when things are out of kilter in our real-world experiences, we are keenly aware of it and disappointed. Our romance doesn’t play out like the Hallmark movies we love. Our families are not like the Waltons. We ourselves don’t live up to our early vision of the person we would become.
One place where this idealism causes real problems is the church. Long before Instagram had people posting pictures of a fake but “ideal” life, people were “putting on a good face” to go to church. They wanted “to be a good witness” so they went to church and pretended like everything in their life was level and plumb. For generations now, the church has become a place to feign perfection because we think it is good PR for the gospel message of the church.
That the church is composed of saintly, holy, totally together people who always support one another and build one another up, is of course a lie. The church isn’t now nor has it ever been made up of people like that. But because we have been projecting that ideal as a reality, we have actually created a PR disaster. Most of the world thinks of us as hypocrites. Anyone who knows a church goer, including myself. Knows we are far from person we aspire to be and know that our church is far from achieving the community it pretends to be.
Jesus is rare in his ability to hold an ideal while simultaneously seeing the reality of humans as individuals and in community. Earlier in this chapter, he talks about how he leaves the 99 to bring back the 1 who goes astray. He talks about the principles of how Christians go about restoring someone who sins. In this Sunday’s gospel reading Peter blurts out the question most of us would be too timid to ask in Sunday school, let alone directly to Jesus.
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. If they sin against God, we try to restore them to God and the church, BUT . . .”
“Lord, if another member of the church sins AGAINST ME, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Seven times is a lot. Remember, Gomer Pyle’s grandmother used to say, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” When someone burns us, even once, it can be hard to forgive. Each time after that, the bond that holds us in relationship becomes weaker. Peter’s number of seven times is actually a huge number when you look at the pain of being sinned against seven times.
How many times has someone hurt you? Sometimes unintentionally, sometime intentionally. That hurt is real. It is undeniable. Peter, are you crazy? You think we should go through that seven times?
Hold on a hot minute. That was just Peter’s guess. Let’s see what Jesus says.
“Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
To make it worse, an equally valid translation would be “seventy times seven”. Jesus is using hyperbole. His point is that there is no limit to how many times we should forgive.
A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another. That’s one reason why the Bible spills so much ink addressing sin and forgiveness. A realist knows that people are going to sin against one another in their private lives, in their business dealings, and in their church.
As a realist Jesus addresses our sinfulness. As an idealist, he says we can’t set limits to how many times we forgive those who sin against us. If we have a limit, we will not have relationships.
Now some look at this and conclude that Christians must become door mats, the meek who are constantly walked on by the unscrupulous. So, it is important that we unpack the difference between forgiveness and restoration or capitulation.
In last week’s passage, Matthew 18:15-20, we saw that the sinner had to listen when told about their wrong-doing. This isn’t the kind of listening that simply involves one’s brain decoding the vibrations of one’s eardrums. This is the kind of listening that involves empathy for the other person and recognition that one’s words and/or actions were wrong. The plumb line and level applied to the behavior have revealed that the behavior doesn’t line up with God’s standards.
Until a person empathizes with the hurt they have caused in someone else, sees their behavior as wrong in the eyes of God, and chooses a corrective course of action, they cannot be restored. For their part, unless the wronged brothers and sisters of the church family, forgive the sinner the fellowship is not restored.
To forgive includes stopping our resentment and anger toward someone who has wronged us. The parable in Matthew 18:23-35, makes clear that forgiveness includes canceling the “debt” of the wrongdoer. It is giving up the “You owe me for that!” mindset.
We’ve been told to “forgive and forget”. That is a well-intentioned attempt to tell us to let it go. We should let go of our resentment, our anger, our ill will toward someone who wrongs us. But I’m with Grandma Pyle. We should not forget. Until someone really hears how what they’ve done is wrong, they are quite likely to continue their pattern of sinning against us (and most likely others).
We have the right, if not the duty, to protect ourselves and others from repeated injury. But we don’t need to carry the baggage of anger, resentment, or hate as we draw boundaries. Hanging on to that negative energy only hurts us.
For us to live in community with family, friends, or the church requires a special skillset. We need the courage to address wrongdoing in our community. We need the ability to forgive wrongdoing. We need the ability to restore fellowship to someone who hears reproof and corrects course. We need to recognize our own wrongdoing and be willing to change our behavior. We need the ability to draw protective boundaries so that we don’t continue to be hurt while preparing our hearts for the return to fellowship when those who sinned against us turn from their patterns of sin.
Let’s be real with one another, we humans are always hurting one another. No, it’s not just you experiencing that. If we can’t talk, empathize, change, forgive, and restore relationships, we simply will not have relationships. We have done the gospel message a disservice by putting a good face on our churches which are actually full of messy relationships.
Yes, the church has answers. The answers aren’t platitudes or “fake it till you make it”. The answers are challenging tools for real (messy) people in real (messy) relationships. I love idealistic visions that depict the kind of world we wish we lived in. I’m a huge fan of Hallmark movies and schmaltzy music. But for answers to real world problems, I need the church to be real. I don’t want or need easy answers. I want answers that work. I believe if we, the church, get real, we’ll be far more appealing to this world filled with other messy people in their messy relationships.
Thank you for sharing this time with me. May God bless you.