Forgiveness For the Unforgiving

A wise friend recently told me that pandemics are good for ruminating, and that’s bad news for us. Because if you’re like me, when I’m given the opportunity to reflect, unfortunately I’m pretty quick to glance over gratitude, and I tend to linger on the questions of who I’ve become, how my life is going compared to how I thought it would go, and the resentments and frustrations that have built up. When I reflect for a long time I almost always come around to thinking about forgiveness, and when I think about Forgiveness I get anxious, I think about the things I’ve done and left undone, I think about that chatter in my chest that tells me not to forgive when I know I should or could but just don’t want to when I’ve been hurt. When I think about forgiveness I think about the people I love and those moments I wish I could take back, the things I wish had gone unsaid, the things I wish I could have said. When I just think about life I think about forgiveness; it’s like love in the ways that we say, “love is all you need”, forgiveness often feels like the one thing we need, but it can feel so very far away. We go out searching for love, but we also go out and even look deep within ourselves in search of forgiveness. We say it’s all we need because we need it, because it doesn’t feel like we have it. 

And this is why Peter annoys me so much in this passage from Matthew. Can you imagine asking someone or confessing to someone that you may only be able to forgive someone seven times? Asking if it’s alright if you only forgive seven times, is that enough, am I doing enough? That seems like the biggest, most obnoxious humble brag I’ve ever heard. It’s like hearing someone say, “do you think it’s ok that I only exercise five times a week?”

I picture Peter asking Jesus this without even making eye contact with him. He’s really just craning his neck towards the other disciples so they can hear how righteous he is. And as they roll their eyes at Peter, Jesus crushes him, he doesn’t double down, he says you need to forgive ten times more and in some translations seventy times more. Jesus says, “sweet Peter, you should thank God that I’m going to forgive you for being so ridiculous, for not being a fraction as forgiving as you think you are.”

And then he tells this dark parable about a slave who is forgiven much, but then refuses to forgive someone who owes him little. Remember this is all told in response to Peter’s obnoxious suggestion that he’s pretty good at forgiving.

In this parable we’re reminded that forgiveness is hard, and that the perfect forgiveness God demands from us and we long to receive from others is impossible. If we walk away from this with the mentality of Peter, that we’re capable of forgiving this well or this many times, then we’re in for a rude awakening. Instead, if we read it honestly, it will hurt, it will cut us down at the knees and makes us feel a bit like Novak Djokovic did early this week at the US Open, but it will also direct us to other side of death and resurrection where there is one who can and has forgiven us perfectly.

I could relate so well to what happened to Djokovic last week. One of the world’s greatest tennis players and the heavy favorite to win the entire tournament, in an early round match Djokovic was on the verge of losing an opening set, and out of frustration he tossed a ball out from his pocket rocketed the ball behind him towards a wall. But he instantly heard the sound of his ball strike a line judge in the neck. He turned around just a split second after the ball had left his hand and just shouted no! Thankfully the line judge recovered, but Djokovic was understandably disqualified for his unsportsmanlike act.

When asked to comment on this, John McEnroe said, “it’s a tough situation, and really a shame because now Djokovic is going to be seen as a bad guy for the rest of his career.” A fellow announcer responded quickly, and with a bit of surprise in her voice asked if he really thought this was something Djokovic couldn’t come back from. McEnroe, said, “well he can embrace it, but what he’ll have to embrace is that everyone now sees him as the villain.” 

Forgiveness is hard to come by. The world judges quickly and after it does so, it’s sentence stands above us like a great oak casting down some bitter shade. 

In our confession of sin, we ask for forgiveness for the things we’ve done, as well as the things we’ve left undone. We seek absolution for who we’ve become, but also for what we’ve failed to become. Sometimes the things left undone or not done well enough leave us feeling cast aside and forgotten. But we don’t forget. We carry the disappointment and self-resentment with us. It’s hard to forgive the world when it feels like it’s given up on us, but it’s even harder to forgive ourselves. To accomplish a sense of being right with the world and everyone else around, to feel like we’ve done well. 

In 1964, Caroline Gordon, an accomplished southern writer and teacher, surprised Flannery O’Connor in her hospital room. O’Connor had been receiving letters of support and editing notes on her own stories from Gordon for 13 years, and here in the hospital as she worked away on her final masterpiece “Parker’s Back”, Gordon arrived with a remarkable fifteen pages of notes for her, as well as a shorter version if O’Connor wasn’t feeling well. This was a remarkable relationship and a real display of love and grace, these busy, hyper-focused authors took the time to listen to one another, to encourage and make suggestions that would aid the other’s obsession with crafting a story that was somehow both beautiful and true. Gordon would soon after learn that O’Connor had taken a turn for the worse and was now on her deathbed, finally succumbing to lupus at the age of 39. But instead of rushing another set of edits to help O’Connor along on her pursuit of finally doing well, instead Caroline Gordon sent a telegraph to her on her deathbed that simply said; “you have succeeded.” It wasn’t a word of forgiveness, or maybe it was. What it was was a word of love, a word that O’Connor needed, O’Connor who had been anxiously chasing after the title of being a good enough daughter, Christian, friend and writer all her life. It’s clear from her writing that she had been searching for beauty and absolution, for mercy and forgiveness. On her deathbed she received it.

Perfect forgiveness may be hard for us to come by from others or from ourselves, but when he was on his own deathbed, upon the Cross, Jesus said on our behalf, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” And that’s exactly what God does. Once and for all, perfect, limitless love and forgiveness for the unlovable, for the unforgivable and unforgiving, for you and me. You have succeeded in being forgiven. It is finished, and now we may love because He first loved us, and we may forgive because we know how sweet it is to have been forgiven. 

Amen