How often should we forgive? And, how much should we forgive?
This is one of the toughest questions of Christianity. Everything about our culture and human instinct tells us to get even — to exact revenge for any wrong done to us.
But, then, we aspire to follow a Messiah who demands we set aside our gnawing desire for retribution, and forgive.
Forgive? Sure. That sounds hard, but reasonable. But, really, how far do we take this?
Peter wrestles with this question in Matthew 18, when he comes to Jesus to test the waters on just how far we should push this forgiveness business. He asks: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Seven times? That seems ridiculous. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me seven times…?
In the standards of our society, Peter already is setting a radical standard. But, Jesus tells him — and us — to take it further. Much further.
Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.” Some translations say “seventy times seven” — 490 times.
Jesus’ response is purposefully impractical. It doesn’t really matter if it’s 77 times or 490 times — in either case, how many of us would keep count, or go that far? The point is we’re not to give up in offering forgiveness, because Christ never gives up on us.
Even as he dies on the cross we nailed him to, Jesus cries out “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
And, Christ didn’t give up on Peter.
After Peter denied Christ three times, causing himself much anguish, Jesus appears to him in John 21, after the Resurrection.
Jesus asks him three times “Do you love me?” to which Peter answers “yes,” getting his feelings hurt a bit more each time. Each time, Jesus tells Peter to care for his sheep. Jesus is entrusting his flock into the hands of someone who’s already betrayed him. That is forgiveness.
After the third time, Jesus foretells Peter’s crucifixion: “when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
Then, he says to Peter — and to us — “Follow me!”
This is a hard path. Jesus is giving us a call not only to follow him to the cross, but to accept the cross willingly, and forgive whoever has nailed us to it.
This does not mean we allow ourselves to be abused, or to be trapped in manipulative situations by those who misuse the Christian premise of forgiveness. Notice, in Peter’s story, Jesus comes to him after he repents. And we are called to forgive — but that doesn’t mean we can’t uphold accountability and healthy boundaries.
But, why would we go to all the spiritually hard and painful work of forgiveness? Again, remember always Christ forgives us, in spite of us being unworthy. Also, consider the incredible importance of Peter in the development of Christianity.
Peter becomes Christ’s rock, upon which is built the Church. And that would not have been possible if Peter had not sought and received Christ’s forgiveness.
When Peter comes to his own cross, he displays the full realization of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. Forgiveness makes no sense, in the ways of the world. And forgiving in the way of Christian grace — that is completely upside down from the ways of the world.
As Peter stands before his cross, he requests to be crucified upside down. Once hung in that manner, he relates why, in the apocryphal writings of Acts of Peter: “Unless ye make the things of the right hand as those of the left, and those of the left as those of the right, and those that are above as those below, and those that are behind as those that are before, ye shall not have knowledge of the kingdom.”
In other words, to truly understand the Kingdom of God, you have to turn the world upside down. And radical forgiveness, the love Jesus poured out on the cross — that’s a grace that turns the world upside down.
Will we fail in following this example? Absolutely. Peter failed — pretty spectacularly. But, the difference between Peter and Judas Iscariot, is Peter repented from his failing. He sought forgiveness. And then he shone the light of that love into the world.
We should emulate Peter, follow Jesus to the cross, and die to our anger and hatred.
And when we fail, we should remember our call is to get back up, and try again. In the words of St. John Chrysostom, “Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.”
Are there people in your life you need to forgive? Are there wrongs you need to lay down?
Lord God, help us make a sincere inspection of ourselves, find those burdens we need to lay down, and offer and seek forgiveness where it is needed. And thus unburdened, let us take up our cross, and follow your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.