Image: The promise of forgiveness is like the dawn of a new day.
Ezekiel 12.1-16 | Psalm 78 | Matthew 18.21-19.1
Today’s gospel reading is about forgiveness. As Peter approaches Jesus and asks him the appropriate number of times to forgive someone, we might be wondering who, in the community of disciples, is Peter having a problem with. That question aside, what Peter asks is important. How many times should we forgive someone and why would we find ourselves in a position of having to forgive someone more than once?
First, despite what some may be led to believe, being Christian does not mean that we have to be pushovers, allowing others to take advantage of our good nature. The biblical injunction to turn the other cheek does not mean that we have to stand there if the option is available for us to turn around and leave. If someone cannot be trusted it is okay to give that person a respectable berth if you see them coming toward you. Forgive them yes, but forgiveness is not a licence for the other person to continue their bad behaviour. Trust, like respect, once lost, is something which must be earned again.
But, sometimes there are situations that we cannot leave. Perhaps it is a marriage, or one has children that have fallen into the harmful behaviours associated with addiction. Love is a bond that is not easily broken and saying goodbye is not an option. Forgiveness does not mean that we excuse harmful behaviours. We have every right to safety and respect, so it is not about letting the other person off the hook. Forgiveness in this case means not harboring resentment toward another. It means letting go of anger and bitterness which become like a poison if we let it build inside of us. If someone is in the throws of an addiction we recognize that they have a problem that needs to be dealt with and it does not have to become our responsibility by letting it take over our lives as well.
The flip side of forgiveness is the offering of apologies. How often should we apologize if we hurt someone. I wrote about this when it was announced that Pope Francis would not be coming to Canada to express an apology on behalf of the Church to the victims of the Indian Residential Schools.
Some have argued that the apology isn’t really necessary, after all, Pope Benedict already expressed his sorrow for the residential schools to Assembly of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine in 2009, other Church leaders including Bishops from our own diocese have made similar gestures. But in the eyes of the aggrieved, an expression of sorrow does not amount to an explicit apology and the authority of a local Bishop does not amount to the authority of the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. Strong voices within the First Nations community are saying that, without an explicit apology from Francis, reconciliation cannot move forward.
But let’s put this argument aside. Let’s say we, as a Church, have apologized, and apologized well. Does it really mean that we do not have to take Call to Action #58 seriously? When a relationship has been damaged by a breach of trust, not in a small way but in a very serious, catastrophic way, what is the correct number of apologies?
When asked by his disciples how many times should one forgive when we have been wronged Jesus said seventy times seven, a number which figuratively means a boundless amount of times. If Christ had been asked the converse, “If I hurt someone, how many times should I ask forgiveness”, his answer may have been similar. Sometimes it is necessary to say “I’m sorry” more than once.
Forgiveness then, is freedom. It frees us from hurt and anger and it gives the other person the freedom to try and do better. Asking for forgiveness is an invitation to those we have hurt to allow themselves to be healed and towards reconciling our relationship with each other, and it is an admission and promise that we need to and will do better going forward.