The movie Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has been in my Netflix queue for quite a while, so I decided Monday, the 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, was a good day to watch it. It is a fictional account of how a boy deals with the death of his father, who was in the World Trade Center that day. If you haven’t watched it, I can heartily recommend it. I may make it my habit to watch it every year on the anniversary.
But I will warn you that it was the first movie in a long time to make me cry. There is a scene in which two people who don’t know each other have a conversation about forgiveness. It may not have the same effect on others who watch it, but what I saw in that scene was something I see almost every Sunday. That moment right after the confession, when I look into your faces and pronounce the words of absolution, the promise that you can let go of whatever guilt or shame is weighing your heart down, and get a new start. It is my favorite part of being a priest. It’s like witnessing the Resurrection over and over and over.
That is the power of forgiveness—it gives us a chance for a new start. Forgiveness is at the heart of our faith as Christians. We believe in the God of second chances. And third and fourth and fifth and seventy-seventh chances.
Peter’s question to Jesus about how many times he must forgive someone, “as many as seven times,” is probably not to be taken literally, any more than Jesus’ answer of ‘seventy-seven’ is. It’s symbolic language. When you see the number ‘seven’ in the Bible, it is usually meant to signify ‘fullness’ or ‘completeness.’ So Peter was basically asking, “Do I have to forgive this other member of the church every time he sins against me?” and Jesus is saying, “Even more than that.” Jesus is calling for an attitude of forgiveness that transcends merely keeping track of the sins people commit. Jesus is calling us to be patient with one another in our imperfections and frailties. He’s saying that it’s not about keeping track. Stop counting how many times a person has sinned against you and start showing some patience, Peter. Stop looking for the moments of offense; start looking for the moments of grace. Forgiveness is the atmosphere in which we live.
Jesus tells parable about a slave who owes his king TEN THOUSAND talents—that’s the equivalent of 150 years of wages. Never mind how he could possibly have racked up that much debt. The point is that he can’t pay it and he’ll never be able to pay it, no matter how much he tries to work out a payment plan.
No, says the king. No payment plan. (Notice that the king does NOT let him set the terms!) I’ll just forgive the debt, and let you start over.
We don’t see what the man’s reaction is. Is he grateful? His subsequent actions would suggest otherwise. A hundred denarii is not a very large sum. Certainly nothing like the crushing debt that had just been lifted from his shoulders. But he fails to show mercy to the one who is indebted to him.
And it comes back around on him, because he is still living in the old system of keeping score. He chooses to live in the old system of debt and repayment, rather than embrace this new, unpredictable, uncontrollable world of forgiveness. He chooses the old system, so the king puts him back into it.
I don’t think Jesus is suggesting that God’s forgiveness is conditional, any more than God’s love is conditional. I think, instead, he is pointing out that we can only fully understand our own forgiveness, our own belovedness, by forgiving and loving others.
I want to clarify something, though. This is one of those passages that has been twisted and corrupted, to keep abused women in violent or dangerous situations. I don’t believe for a second Jesus meant for it to be used this way. A woman in an abusive relationship can forgive her abuser and still leave. Sometimes forgiveness is about removing oneself from such a situation, because that’s the only way to avoid re-offense. Forgiveness does not negate accountability and consequences. Forgiveness doesn’t deny that there was harm done. Forgiveness isn’t saying, “oh, that’s all right, you didn’t really hurt me.”
Forgiveness is saying, “Your sin is hurting both of us. I will not let your sin continue to hold me captive, or make me less of a person.” Forgiveness allows us to let go of the resentments that keep us captive, stuck in the pain of the offense.
Forgiveness helps us let go of the things that are keeping us stuck where we are, unable to move forward like those Egyptian chariots with their mud-clogged wheels. Forgiveness helps us to stop focusing on what’s behind us, and look up to see that God is creating a way where there was once no way. But we can’t get there if we refuse to leave our useless chariots behind. It is not instantaneous, and it’s not easy. It can take a long time and a lot of effort and some risk.
We are living in a time when people are clinging to their muddy chariots, unwilling to acknowledge the ways in which the sins of the past still affect the present. We try to distance ourselves from them, pretend that we are not still living with the consequences of sins we are unwilling to confess, sins we are unwilling to forgive. Instead of offering the vulnerability that comes from repentance and forgiveness, we respond with violence or fear or revenge.
As Christians, we have the opportunity to show a different way through. We can demonstrate to a world where holding grudges and fostering resentment is seen as strength that forgiveness—on both the giving and receiving ends—is far more powerful. Violence and revenge can only destroy; forgiveness has the power to create. We can offer the world the hope that even when it seems there is no way out, when we are stuck between a rock and a hard place, or between the Egyptians and the Red Sea, the God of second chances will provide a way through. We only need to leave behind our mud-clogged chariots take that first step out onto the dry ground, toward grace.