This verse from the Gospel of Matthew has been translated in different ways. Are we supposed to forgive 77 times or 70 times 7 times? The difference of 413 instances of forgiveness is huge. But how did we get there?
The common thinking in Jesus' day was that you only had to forgive three times, so Peter obviously thinks he is being very generous by saying he will forgive seven times when someone has hurt him. This is double the teaching plus one and is also the perfect number in Hebrew thought….. think the 7 days of creation! But Jesus refers back to the scriptures he knew well, the Torah, the scriptures he grew up studying, back to the book we know as Genesis, and the story of Cain and Abel. After Cain had killed Abel he was filled with remorse and had a conversation with God, saying,:
“My punishment is greater than I can bear! Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.”
Then God said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.”
Some seven generations later, Lamech was born, and, after killing a man who had attacked him, said, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then surely Lamech must be avenged seventy seven fold.”
So when Jesus is asked this question about forgiveness, he turns the vengeance to forgiveness and says, “Not seven times, I tell you. But seventy seven fold.” So this could be seen as 77 or seventy times seven. And I think the ones who are keeping count are the only ones really worried about which number it is… for both translations tell us that we have to forgive often…. Probably way more often that we want to!
Jesus then shares a story about forgiveness, which shows us that forgiveness really needs to change both the person that is receiving it and the one offering it… the slave whose debt was forgiven did not allow this to happen. He was forgiven and then refused to forgive a fellow slave. But when the forgiveness does not change the behavior of the one forgiven, does the forgiveness count?
I think this is freeing to us in a lot of ways, and can be different from the ways the world can expect. For so often we hear we should forgive and forget… and this can lead to thinking we have to stay in relationship with someone who hurts us over and over again. But when the offering of forgiveness does not lead to a change of behavior, then I don’t think Jesus is telling us to stay in that relationship 77 times over, let alone seventy times seven. When the act of forgiving keeps allowing trust to be broken, forgiveness is not an act to repeat for the other, but it may be time to repeat it for oneself. For the slave whose debt was forgiven, but who did not allow this act of generosity to change him and refused to forgive another’s debt, was taken and punished, until he could repay his original debt.
As a survivor of abuse, and someone who works a lot with people who have experienced abuse, this is a really important lesson to remember, especially when the abuse happens within a family system. Many times the abuser or abusers keep on violating trust, and the abused one forgives, often because they need the family structure in order to survive. This can be especially true when they are children, where the adults in their life are the ones who are vital for their daily needs, even when they are also abusing the child. There is no other option than for the child to keep turning to the adults for food, shelter, scraps of love and kindness. And the forgiveness the child offers each time that a crumb of hope is thrown their way is purely a survival tactic. Eventually, the child will come to believe that they are the one at fault, and self hatred begins to build, for these adults who feed them must be ok, and that these adults do not change their behaviors, even after the child forgives them, means the hurt must be their own fault, and that is unforgiveable: self esteem drops and self loathing builds.
All this begs the question about what forgiveness actually is then. If forgiveness is not meant to be returning to the same patterns for forgivee and forgiver, if it means that a cycle should be broken, what does forgiveness look like? And who is forgiveness for?
Sometimes, absolutely, the forgiveness is for the one who has wronged. There is a great story that was going around that is probably not true, but was a beautiful illustration of forgiveness, healing and transformation. It said that there is a tribe in Africa where, when someone does something wrong, they are brought to the center of the tribe. The tribe circles up around them and begins to speak, not of the wrongdoing of the individual in the center, but of all the gifts and love they have to share. Thus the wrongdoer is surrounded by words of Love and reminded of who they are at the very core of their being. It reminds me of how we forgive our children, over and over, for the things they do as they are learning what it means to be a kind and loving human being in this world. We forgive them for their wrongdoings while reminding them of the good person they are.
But most often the forgiveness is for the one who has been wronged, for the very one who is offering the forgiveness. It serves to free them from the pain, to change them, to bring them healing. And it does not even have to include the person being forgiven. Someone once wrote, “I never knew how strong I was until I had to forgive someone who wasn't sorry & accept an apology I knew I'd never receive...” and this is true. We can forgive without the other person even being aware we have forgiven them, and, most importantly, this leads to self forgiveness too. In these cases, forgiveness can look like cutting ties to the relationship, but, more that this, a sense of freedom in the one forgiving. When they think of the incident, or incidents, that need forgiving, a sense of peace will be there, replacing the shame or anger or frustration or pain. It’s an inner change that the other may never know, and it only requires the self to do the forgiving.
A friend and colleague of mine, Liza, did a lot of work with prisoners in a process called reconciliation circles. She would go into the state prison once a week, and meet with a dozen or so men, all sitting in a circle. And the aim was to have these men come to terms with the crimes they had committed and discover the deep, inner reasons they had done them. It was found that the men, after doing this work, were far less likely to commit new crimes after their release, with less than a 10% recidivism rate. Most of the work these prisoners do is to come to terms with their own demons and pain, the ways they have been hurt, often from a very young age. Liza said, “Because the groups are at least 12 months long meeting weekly, the formation of trust within the group and the learning of speaking about personal things, even taboo things was critical. More than focusing on the crimes, the groups focused on the psychological and sociological reality that children must adapt anyway they can in families that are abusive and neglectful, and those adaptations, usually unconscious, taken into adulthood can lead to emotionally dysfunctional interactions. The men could only think about forgiving themselves after they had processed what happened to them before they committed their crime, and how their crime impacted others. Self-forgiveness was accompanied by the gradual development of a new identity as a person who could and would make different choices, and a recognition that forgiving their young emotionally volatile self was a part of moving on.”
Once these men had learned to forgive themselves, once they had found the healing that comes from telling their stories and exploring the deep hurts, Once that transformation was complete, then they could work on receiving the forgiveness offered to them by the victims of their crimes. And in hearing their stories and their process of transformation, the victims, in turn, were transformed and were able to offer forgiveness to the men, allowing them, too, to find healing, seeing the perpetrators as a broken human being rather than a monster.
This self forgiveness is, perhaps, the most important factor in living a forgiving life. Desmond Tutu said, “Learning from the past is not the same as being held hostage by what we have done. At some stage we must let go of the past and begin again. We have said repeatedly that no one is undeserving of forgiveness. When we forgive ourselves, we also free ourselves from a cycle of punishment and retribution directed at ourselves.”
I believe this is what the Romans passage we heard is pointing to.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written,
“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
For us to truly stand before God, we must practice self awareness, and self forgiveness. We must allow ourselves to be transformed by this. We must become so aware and so humble that we fall to our knees before God in thanksgiving for the million ways God forgives us, heals us, welcomes us and loves us. For once we are forgiven by God, which we are daily, then how can we fail to fall to our knees in awe!
As we daily pray those words Jesus taught us, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others…. Let us always be aware of our trespasses, begging forgiveness form God, from the other, and from ourselves. Let us have the courage to stand in circles of reconciliation, to seek the deep, inner healing that each of us needs, to listen to our confessions, to hear our gifts and the love others have for us pouring back into our hearts. Let us allow forgiveness to transform us at our very cores. And then let us fall to our knees in gratitude and praise!