When Jesus is asked by his disciples whether it is enough to forgive someone seven times (in contrast to Cain) Jesus replies:
Not seven times, but I tell you seventy seven times.
Why that number -77- we might ask? We saw in Week One that the Israelites grappled early on with the subject of what to do about sin and its consequences. But let’s go back even further in time, to the time of the Patriarchs.
In Genesis 4:23 Lamech kills a man for wounding him, a young man for striking him. Lamech calls his wives and tells them:
If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech is avenged seventy seven fold.
This is the story Jesus refers to. So Jesus places his message of forgiveness, in contrast to Lamech’s answer, which was revenge.
Revenge in the OT is often the alternative to forgiveness. It still is often today. Revenge is about maintaining an equitable level of suffering. An eye for an eye. Much of today’s national politics – the fire-bombing of Dresden springs to mind– uses revenge rather than forgiveness as a way of settling problems. Of course, we call it ‘retaliation’ rather than revenge, as after 9-11. Sometimes we call it justice but it is really institutionalised revenge.
One reason revenge is wrong because it doesn’t work. Ultimately, any extreme hurt cannot be met by violent revenge. Often, a serious hurt cannot even be met by justice. Listen to those who have lost someone through dangerous driving, – ‘the sentence is not enough,’ say the relatives. There is often a cry for revenge. ‘We have lost a loving brother, but the killer is still alive. It’s not fair,’ is the cry. ‘They should die too. They’re out after three months – we have the life sentence.’
Of course, forgiveness is easier if the perpetrator is sorry, but often they are not. The result is that both parties are imprisoned in a mutual exclusion, one unable to forgive and one unable to repent – it’s a communion of mutual hate. The trouble with revenge is that it enslaves us. Violence feeds on revenge, revenge feeds on violence. Someone consumed with Revenge is harming themselves as much as the other.
The only answer is to act, not to re-act, and the only way to do that, is to forgive. Jesus saw this. Jesus is
The discoverer of the role of forgiveness inhuman affairs
said the German philosopher Hannah Arendt. Forgiveness is central to the Gospel we all say we believe in. Remember, if it is not easy for us, it was very hard for Jesus too. Jesus is preaching against a culture of revenge. Lamech’s version of revenge was institutionalised because it seemed the only way to root out injustice. But Jesus turns it on his head. Jesus demands that his followers see revenge is wrong, and tells them to forgive and go on doing forgiving, way beyond the number of times Lamech sought to avenge himself.
And Jesus lived and died by what he taught. The phrase
Father, forgive them
is among his last words.
They know not what they do.
But consumed with hate, or the desire for revenge, none of us know what we are doing. And with that prayer of Jesus, revenge is overcome. Only forgiveness will do. Since the Cross, any true Christianity is a religion of reconciliation. Every day we pray –‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ These words are so familiar to us that I wonder if sometimes we miss a vital point –that the forgiveness we ask for is connected to the forgiveness we extend to others! God’s grace to us and our obligation to others goes hand in hand.
Forgive us our trespasses. A trespasser is someone who crosses a line and walks where they should not walk. But Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, makes it clear that we need to go deeper. We often need to ask forgiveness for our thoughts and words, as well as our action of crossing the line. Modern scripture versions say ‘forgive us our debts’ – but there is no doubt whatever term we use that sins can be forgiven. We should not think of God forgiving us is an easy matter, any more than it is easy for us to forgive other people. Forgiveness for God meant that God sent His Son to die on the cross. But God’s forgiveness for us is connected to our reconciliation with each other.
The parable of the Prodigal Son makes it clear that there is a need for two types of reconciliation in our relationship with God. The younger brother represents the journey of the person who comes back to God after years of rebellion, of doing his own thing. The elder brother represents all of us as we continue in the Christian life. There are moments in all our journeys when we realise that we need to seek our Father’s forgiveness. We cannot earn forgiveness. The elder brother seems to think he has a right to his Father’s love– he has stayed and looked after his father while the other went off and had a good time. He is indignant because he thinks he has earned a right. He does not – none of us have.
I want to finish with a few points:
Forgiveness is not easy, but it is the only way of moving on. The one who does not forgive remains imprisoned by his own desire for retribution of some kind.
Forgiveness is not a substitute for Justice. Only those who are forgiven, and who are willing to forgive, are capable of pursuing Justice without falling into the temptation to pervert it into injustice. Jesus warns us to remove the beam in our own eye so we can see clearly.
Finding strength to forgive is difficult. In the dark chambers of our hearts and fed in its darkness, the hate we feel grows and infests. But placed in the light of God, in prayer, hate recedes, and the miracle of forgiveness can happen. When I feel hatred for someone, I exclude them from the company of ‘good’ human beings. But feeling I am in the right, I forget that I am a sinner, too. Before the crucified Messiah, I am free to discover the other’s humanity, and to re-discover in myself the love God has for them. God does not stop loving them, because they have sinned against me, even if we feel He should. God is not on my side because I am me.
When you know that God’s love is greater than all sin, then you are free to rediscover your own sinfulness. Forgiveness is central to Christ’s message, it is central to Christianity – Forgiveness is what Christianity is all about. However much in the right we feel, Paul tells us (Romans 3;23)
We have all sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.
That’s why Jesus tells us not to judge each other. Who are we to judge another, when we have all sinned? That’s why we needed a perfect Saviour. Only a perfect Saviour could show us what forgiveness is and how to do it. Only a perfect Saviour could forgive without judging another, could teach us that forgiveness must be balanced, and that we could only be forgiven to the same extent as we could forgive others.