St. Augustine of Hippo


Episcopal Church

 


“Let’s Play Tit for Tat”


(Matthew 18:21-28)


September 13, 2020


by

The Rev. Nathanael Saint-Pierre


Did you have a sister or a brother with whom you played Tit for Tat when you two were young? When s/he ate your meat, you went ahead and ate her/his ice cream? When s/he walked on your foot, you smacked her/his face? I had a sister named Nadia. We were that kind of sister and brother. We wouldn’t let go of anything. We were always competing for everything: school grades, opportunities, etc. 

Peter, the Peter we all love for putting his foot in his mouth (of course, figuratively) came to Jesus just after the latter expressed his position on conflict resolution and asked: “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Raised in Judaism, a tradition in which forgiveness was required three times, Peter thought that seven times would impress Jesus. So, he added: “As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.

What does Jesus’ answer mean? Is there a limit to forgiveness? Should we keep a tally sheet to keep count of the times we have forgiven a sister or brother who sins against us?

Different versions of this same story exist in the New Testament. In Luke 17, Jesus said to the disciples: “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” Another translation of Matthew 18:21-28 increases the math from seventy-seven times to seventy times seven. Jesus was not looking to put a limit on our forgiveness toward an offender. He was teaching that our forgiveness should be unlimited the same way God’s forgiveness towards us is unlimited.

Peter failed to impress Jesus by trying to limit the number of times we ought to forgive. God’s grace is limitless and always available. Forgiveness lies at the heart of our faith in God and our love of one another. Forgiveness, which we receive from God our King, in the person of Jesus, is what our King expects from his subjects in their dealings with each other.

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group that has harmed us, regardless of whether they deserve our forgiveness. Forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold onto bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerful healing force but also an incredibly difficult thing to receive or share. When we hold onto hurt, pain, resentment, and anger, it harms us far more than it harms the offender. Forgiveness frees us to live in the present. Reliving the wrong that was done to us keeps us living in the past and missing today's beauty. Forgiveness allows us to move on without anger or contempt or seeking revenge.

That is why Jesus taught the disciples how essential and unconditional forgiveness must be. Some of us like to provide forgiveness only when the offender is repentant. Others seek to get even, rendering proportional payback. Using the Lord’s prayer, we must understand that our request for divine forgiveness is proportional to our forgiving those who sin against us. To request God’s forgiveness while we hold onto what people have done to us is to despise the sacrifice made for us by our savior Jesus Christ. We must acknowledge that we are repetitive offenders. Despite our repentances and multiple confessions, we can offer no guarantee that we will stop sinning. That is why we must let go of our desire to seek for retribution against those who sin against us and start offering absolution without confession.

Intentionally, I choose to focus on what forgiveness is instead of what it is not. But I find it important to tell you that forgiveness is not to enable an abuser to abuse your trust again and again. It is not either to banalize or minimize the offense pretending that it does not really matter. Forgiveness is to free yourself from the abuse and the anger, from the ongoing belittling into the affirmation of the person God created us all to be, the bitterness that those abuses engender to the courage to confront sin. On some occasions, forgiveness might be to just walk away (turn the page) and start a new chapter.

One last thing about forgiveness is that often our inability to forgive others is the reflection of our inability to forgive ourselves. I am not talking about this sentiment of guilt when we are the offender. Instead, I am talking about this feeling of shame for being stupid to have permitted someone to fool us. Offenders often are gifted at making the offended believe that they are responsible for what happened. Some offenders are capable of turning the table around and make the offended feel unworthy and look bad. We are often not able to forgive ourselves because we don’t love ourselves. Forgiveness is an act of love no matter when directed to self or to others.

It is deeply human to compete and compare. We have been programmed to constantly measure. We have been given a scale of sins, a ladder of sanctions, and we want the punishment to be proportional to the offense. My sister Nadia and I could not let go of our mutual offenses and need to be better than the other. Our internalized oppression planted and nurtured in us this desire to be better than the other by pushing the other down. So, we spent the duration of our life together holding onto each offense and making the other pay as much or even more than necessary for an offense. Not only did that affect our lives together but it affected our goals and achievements. Where we could have collaborated to be in the same orchestra, she lied to the music director and got me expelled from the orchestra. She told him her mother was not hospitalized when I told him my mother was. The music director never knew she and I were not of the same mother. I lost a great opportunity to travel to the USA for a concert tour then, because I did not want to explain this situation. I chose to protect our family secret and keep the official story as my mother painted it. When Nadia became sick around 1988, someone told me she was in the hospital. I decided to let go of my rancor and visited her. When she saw me and saw the wooden cross I had around my neck – I was in my second year of seminary – She asked me if she could have it. I said yes and proceeded to put it around her neck. She asked me then if I would ever forgive her. I was already a changed man. I knew that I needed to free myself and if that could free her, that was the right thing to do, so I told her she was forgiven. She died in 1989. I have learned that I cannot compete with her beyond the grave. It was time to let go of resentment, but it was too late to repair our relationship. I would love to be able to tell her I am sorry for the bad tricks I played on her. I would love to tell her that I have freed myself for good from the torments she inflicted on me. That she left too soon and that we have wasted precious time.

The good news of this parable is that the king has forgiven our sins.

He did not look at how much we owe; he set us free.

The debt has been paid.

He did not take us by the throat to force us to pay.

He was not wicked, bitter, or vengeful.

Our king is asking us to forgive not just three or seven times.

He is expecting us to forgive limitlessly.

He is expecting us to forgive no matter the offense.

He is expecting to forgive no matter the offender.

He is expecting us to forgive unconditionally.

Father, please make us aware of how much we have been forgiven by you. Remind us that we can forgive others because you have forgiven us through what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. Help us to forgive those who wrong us that we may bring glory to your name because of how much you have shown mercy to us. Amen.