Anyone who knows me knows that I am hopeless at maths. You will never find me as a volunteer at the sales point in the food pantry because it needs someone competent with adding up. I do less damage if I help in the Food Pantry Cafe where no money changes hands.
The Scripture for today uses the idea of numbers – numbers added or multiplied, enormous numbers or small numbers, numbers when you are keeping a score. It comes in a chapter that speaks of questions to Jesus about how to deal with conflict, particularly among followers of Jesus. What do we do when we disagree? How do we react when someone really hurts us, or offends us?
At some time or another, I expect that all of us have been hurt by someone. Perhaps a family member, a work colleague or neighbour. Maybe we have been cheated, or threatened, or abused, or insulted. Perhaps we have lived in danger in a war zone, or felt betrayed by a political party or by a partner. Sometimes we disagree with others about important issues, and things have turned nasty between us. Of course, there will be times when we have to admit that we have been the cause of the conflict, hurting others, and we are the ones who need forgiveness. Some of these are very great and troubling problems, and others are less so, but still painful.
How do we live when we are carrying personal wounds? How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me?
How do we live when we know that we have been guilty of offending or hurting others? Do I deserve to be forgiven?
In our Gospel reading today, we hear the question that Peter asked Jesus, and the parable that Jesus told in reply.
Peter asked “How many times should I forgive someone[a] who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?”
22 Jesus answered:
Not just 7 times, but 77 times![b]
Peter probably thought that seven times was generous. And it was. In the Rabbinic Jewish teaching in which he had grown up, it taught that someone should forgive his brother three times and after that, there would be consequences. Seven times was really generous. It sounds a bit like the parent, with a naughty child, counting sternly ‘One, two… three!’ and then consequences. My son, who is a High School teacher, says that he is very frustrated by students who play with their mobile phones in class; One: a warning, Two: a repeated warning, Three: the phone is confiscated.
Peter was probably surprised when Jesus said ‘Seventy-seven times.’ Some translations say ‘Seventy times seven’ which is considerably larger. Was that even possible? How does anyone keep track of offences? Do we risk getting confused about whether that was the fifty-sixth or fifty-seventh time? Is there an app for that?
Years ago, I met a woman who was tying knots in a long string hanging from her string bag. She said that she was tying a knot for every time her husband upset her. Keeping score of wrongs!
I think that Jesus was saying, ‘Don’t keep score. There is no limit to grace, no limit to forgiveness’.
Forgiveness can’t be reduced to a mathematical equation. There is no point in trying to keep count.
Is there a limit to how many times I may need to forgive? Or, is there a limit to how many times I can be forgiven?
It goes both ways.
Last Sunday Bruce spoke to us about Radical Acceptance. He made clear that, when accepting things over which we may have no control, that this does NOT mean that someone is forced to submit to an abusive relationship. For our own safety and well-being it may be necessary step right away from a dangerous situation. Talk to Bruce, if this is something that concerns you. Even so, being able to forgive matters.
Jesus tells a story. The story is as exaggerated as the number.
In this story, a king calls in his officials to see how much each one owes him. One of them owed an enormous debt, impossible to pay. He was at risk of losing everything, to be sold into slavery along with his family. He pleaded with the king for mercy, even though he didn’t deserve it and the king forgave him. But, to his shame, this same man attacked another official and demanded payment for a very small debt. The king was angry when he found out what had happened and there were severe consequences.
Someone who read this story tried to work out how to compare the two debts. The translation that we heard today said 50 million silver coins compared to 100. Not 100 million, just 100. In an attempt to give a picture of what that would look like, he suggested that is you think of each silver coin as a 5c piece, you could probably carry 100 in a large pocket. But to carry 50 million you would need an army of 8,600 carriers, each with a bag of 5c weighing 24 kg, and the line would stretch for 8.5 km. This was a debt that was impossible to repay.
Perhaps one way to understand this story is to say, ‘If God – the king – has forgiven us, and dismissed the whole debt we owe, however great that may be, then we must be willing to forgive the ways others have hurt us.’
It doesn’t help to keep score of the wrongs that have been done to us. Forgiveness can’t be reduced to a mathematical equation. There is no point in trying to keep count.
There are times when an impossible debt is a burden on a whole community, or a nation. This can be complex with many layers of difficulty. For example, Caribbean nations including Barbados are challenging the former colonial power of Great Britian. For centuries, British landowners became rish from the labour of people they had enslaved. How do you resolve and pay for that?
A few weeks ago, I went to church at Darwin Memorial Uniting Church in the Darwin CBD. They were celebrating 150 years since the first service was held in Darwin in 1873. In 1873, Darwin was known as Palmerston and was a very rough and isolated town. [Pic 1] The present church building was built in 1960 and is called ‘Darwin Memorial’ because it was ‘in memory of those who gave their lives and those who served in this area during the war’. In February 1942, soon after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Darwin was severely bombed by Japanese forces. Many people died and eleven ships were sunk in the harbour. After the war, when Darwin was being rebuilt, there was a worldwide search for a company that could salvage those sunken ships and clear the harbour. When the contract was awarded to a salvage company, a lot of people were angry. It was awarded to the Fujita Salvage Company, a Japanese-owned company, the former enemy. This was in the 1950s, when memories of the conflict and grief of the war were still very raw. I was a teenager in the 1950s and at that time it would have been impossible to imagine that Japanese language might be taught in Australian schools, or that any Australian would enjoy a delightful holiday in Japan. There was a lot of bitterness.
But in Darwin, the team of the Fujita Salvage Company went about their difficult work professionally, and gradually built friendships with local people in the town. The owner, Mr Fujita, was a pacifist and wanted to make some reparation for the damage done by his country. A special friendship was developed with the people of Darwin Memorial, and an interest grew in their new building that was being built while the salvage company was at work. Mr Fujita wanted to show a sign of peace and reconciliation. [Pic 2] With bronze metal salvaged from one of the sunken ships, he had 77 metal crosses made to be incorporated into the new building, on the pulpit, the Communion rail and at the ends of the pews. The words of the Japanese Ambassador were added to a window near the entrance. [Pic 3]
‘It is a symbol of a pledge (the 77 crosses) that there shall never again be war between us – that our two countries may live in friendship and understanding’.
Seventy seven crosses. Why this odd number? Did they run out of salvaged bronze or places to put the crosses? Or is this a direct reference to the words of Jesus as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 18 verse 17. [Pic 4] ‘Don’t just forgive seven times. Seventy seven times – or without limits.’ In the case of the church community in Darwin and the Japanese workers from the salvage company, it seems that they learned a new relationship as they met face to face and came to know and trust each other in new and healing ways.
I know of extreme examples of what happens when communities keep records of injury and revenge killings and destruction have no end. For many years I lived in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea where tribal fighting is endemic. A minor problem can quickly escalate. People think ‘You injured me and my tribe, so we will payback with a greater injury. You killed one of ours so we will kill six of yours. You burned down some houses and destroyed our gardens so we will burn down your High School’. And so it goes, with no end and no resolution. Keeping count doesn’t help. It cannot break the cycle of pain and injury.
Each week in church, one of the prayers is always a Prayer of Confession. We all need to ask for forgiveness. None of us are perfect. So, each week, together we ask for forgiveness from God and our neighbours for our failings.
There are times when we need to ask for forgiveness as communities for our failings as institutions. A very serious example in recent years has been the shameful revelations through the Royal Commission of abuse experienced in institutions under the direction of churches, as well as other community organisations. Our own Uniting Church has had to face the truth of failure in some of the places where the church had responsibility for the care of children. In response to this, Uniting Church has set up a National Redress Scheme to provide a Redress Payment, access to counselling and a direct personal response from an institution, such as an apology.
In the UCA’s response to the Royal Commission, former national President Dr Deidre Palmer has affirmed the Uniting Church’s commitment to the National Redress Scheme and acknowledged the pain caused for survivors.
“For anyone who was abused in the care of the Uniting Church, in our churches, schools or agencies, I’d again like to apologise sincerely. I am truly sorry that we didn’t protect and care for you in accordance with our Christian values,” said Dr Palmer. “Please be assured that we are working to make amends and to ensure that our Church has a strong and robust culture of child safety that empowers children and adults in our care.”
This is an example of how we, as a church, can fail and turn a blind eye to failure among us. To attempt to repay our debt is continuing to be a massive problem and placing a financial burden on the wider church. We need forgiveness as a community and if it hurts us to make some reparation that seems only fair. But even vast sums probably can never heal past wounds unless the relationship has been restored. Can those who have been wounded by the church find it in their hearts to forgive the church for its failings?
Very soon, we will be casting our votes in the referendum on an indigenous Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution. The tone of some of the debates is becoming increasingly cranky. We have all received a leaflet in the mail with arguments set out, side by side, we say this, you say that, counting up the pros and cons. This is being followed by more interviews, more fact-checking, more strident arguments, comparing offenses and demanding apology, sorrow or justice. Winners and losers.
I was struck by an expression used by an indigenous Anglican minister in an interview about the debate. He talked about this being a ‘transformational forgiveness process’. The possibility of transformation about how we work together for the common good. The idea that forgiveness is involved and that it is a process, not a simplistic one-off event. He argued for maintaining healthy relationships, even when you disagreed.
I plan to vote YES but if you decide to vote NO I hope we can have a respectful, thoughtful conversation about it and that we can still have a good relationship.
Can we forgive?
Can we be forgiven?
Today we have heard two readings. One was the account of Jesus answering Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive. Seventy seven or seventy times seven, or unlimited. At the end of that passage, in verse 35 Jesus tells his followers that God will judge us if we ‘don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart’.
The other reading was from Romans 14.
14 Welcome all the Lord’s followers…. Don’t criticize them for having beliefs that are different from yours. … After all, God welcomes everyone. 4 What right do you have to criticize someone else’s servants? Only their Lord can decide if they are doing right.
The passage finishes with the words in verse 12 12 And so, each of us must give an account to God for what we do.
Whether we need to be forgiven, or whether we need to forgive someone else, each of us needs to take responsibility for our own actions. It does not help to compare ourselves with others – they are worse than me, they hurt me more than I hurt them, look at my record of injuries, don’t blame me…
Each of us must give an account to God for our own actions. And we trust to the grace and mercy of God that we can be forgiven and that God will give us the grace to forgive.