Matthew 18: 21 – 22
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
Jesus says that when someone hurts us we must forgive that someone seventy times seven times. By using the image, Jesus is really saying that there is to be no limits or strings to our forgiving someone and allowing them back into our heart. In 1956, Dag Hammarskjold, who was then Secretary General of the U.N., commenting on the meaning of this kind of forgiveness said, “Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”
Jesus is telling us through Peter that the greatest gift we can give to another person, and to ourselves, is the gift of forgiveness. Forgiveness is the act of letting go of the past and accepting someone back into our heart; of extending our hand and allowing ourselves once more to be vulnerable to another. When Jesus tells Peter that we must forgive someone seventy times seven times, he is really telling us that we must forgive unconditionally; that there can be no bounds, no strings, no limits to the amount of times we let someone back into our heart.
To genuinely forgive someone in the way that Jesus speaks about we must be willing to accept the reality that a person’s faults and personality quirks will probably not disappear overnight. Jesus asks us to forgive even when the person who hurt us is not sorry; or even when we know that despite someone’s sincere apology, they are likely to hurt us again. He asks us to look into the eyes of someone who has hurt us deeply and to show that someone love and acceptance instead of anger and rejection. It is a great gift of unconditional love when we once again open ourselves to trust someone who has really hurt us and let us down.
The kind of forgiveness Jesus asks us to give as a gift to another is really a gift to ourselves as well. It frees us to admit to ourselves that we do not have the knowledge or the wisdom to sit as judge, jury and executioner over someone who has hurt us. To forgive seventy times seven times is a choice that God gives us. We choose life, and love and a relationship for ourselves and for others when we choose to forgive. We relieve ourselves of the burden of carrying around hurt, pain and anger. And we give someone else the freedom to live his or her life — or maybe to rest in peace — with the knowledge that they are loved without strings.
When we forgive, we are not only offering unconditional love but we are taking responsibility for our own lives. We no longer sit and wait for someone else to change for us to be happy; instead we choose to change our own reaction. By so doing, we are opening the door for true healing to occur — healing within ourselves; healing within another; and healing of a relationship.
An example of this kind of healing is in the story of a young man named Kevin who was a colleague of mine several years ago. Kevin shared with me how he had hated his father. He told me that all he had ever wanted was for his dad to hold him, say he loved him and tell him that he was proud of his accomplishments. But Kevin’s dad was never able to show him this kind of affection.
In high school, if Kevin brought home a B+ average, his father belittled him for not getting an A. In college Kevin didn’t graduate high enough in his class. When Kevin fell in love and married outside of his religion, his father stopped speaking to him and forbade him to visit. Eventually Kevin’s hurt became so heavy that he had a breakdown and was hospitalized for a while with depression.
But little by little, Kevin’s spirit began to heal as he found the gift of forgiveness and freely gave it away without strings. Kevin learned to accept himself for not being the person his father had wanted him to be. Once he did that, he was able to forgive his father and to accept him for the person he was without expecting him to change.
One day I was having lunch with Kevin and he smiled and told me that he had been in his dad’s arms 28 times over the past few months. When I asked if his dad had finally started hugging him, Kevin said, ‘no.’ He told me that he had started hugging his father and had learned that it doesn’t really matter who starts a hug.
Kevin had come to a point of healing and wholeness. He had come to forgive without strings; and in so doing was making the connection with his dad that he so very much had wanted for many years.
Kevin’s story represents what Jesus speaks about when he tells us to forgive seventy times seven times. Jesus tells us to plant our own garden instead of sitting around and waiting for someone else to send us flowers.
This kind of unconditional forgiveness is its own reward. It is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle — a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, and what is soiled is again made clean.
Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:
Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life
Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry