Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s offered kids like me all kinds of opportunity to play unhindered by adult supervision. Our calendars were empty of predetermined sports and other recreational activities schools or clubs might sponsor. In other words, we learned how to play with each other by playing with each other. We rode our bikes, played jacks or jumped from square to square in hopscotch. We enjoyed long afternoons of playing a game or two of pick-up baseball. We chose who would be on our teams and gave ourselves team names. We were both players in the game and referees of the plays. Sometimes we had to get an adult to settle a disagreement but for the most part, we did our own negotiating, fought our own battles and celebrated our own triumph together.
I think our methods worked most of time. If we had a disagreement we would try and shout louder than the other guy or gal and look for support among the other players to side with us in the argument. But there was one hard and fast rule, at least in my neighborhood. Everyone got another chance. You flubbed up…well, you could always yell “do-over” and everyone had to back off and give you another opportunity to try again. The do-overs were sacred. We all needed to take advantage of them at some point so there wasn’t any shame in it. You messed up; you’d get another chance. That was playground etiquette and for us, it worked.
But there were rules. First, you had to ask for a do-over. You couldn’t assume someone else would pitch your need for you. And, second, everyone only got one chance at a do-over, one chance to make the play. You messed up the second time…well, you were done. That small measure of forgiveness and grace would usually do the trick but, not always.
In our gospel reading this morning, Peter confronts Jesus with a question about forgiveness. “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” In just two short sentences Peter’s query suggests a couple of key thoughts. First, Peter is not asking about a general rule on forgiveness, which might include just about anybody. He wanted to know a specific way to live with others in the community of faith. “If another member of the church sins against me…” To ask a question like this would suggest that a problem has occurred within the faith community. Laws are created after a break in social behavior has happened, rarely before. As human behavior goes, we always seem to be more reactive than proactive. So what we can surmise is something has happened the details of which are not made obvious to us in this reported conversation. What we can guess is someone has sinned and forgiveness is needed. But how much forgiveness is necessary and how often must it be extended?
This leads to the next key thought. Peter answers his own question or at least, he tries. His answer comes as another question, “as many as seven times?” Now we might wonder why Peter would fix on the number seven. In the world of Peter and Jesus, seven was considered a sacred number, a holy number and thus, a perfect number. To forgive seven times would be, at least in Peter’s mind and those listening, perfect forgiveness. Jesus’ response probably surprised everyone.
Apparently, seven times wasn’t as perfect as Peter believed. Perfect forgiveness was boundless. Like God’s forgiveness. God forgives us endless number of times as we trip and stumble through our lives. God gives us a chance to have innumerable opportunities for do-overs. Perfect forgiveness in God’s eyes, by God’s rules, and through God’s grace and love has no assigned number.
But there is one catch and the parable that follows the dialogue between Peter and Christ illustrates it very well. Having received forgiveness from God, we are expected to offer forgiveness in like measure to others. As the parable depicts the penalty not to do so is harsh. The king offers these words to his recently forgiven servant: “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave/servant, as I had mercy on you?” The punishment is swift and harsh. Breaking all the rules of parables in general, Jesus explains its meaning with the words, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
We are all very human and we all make mistakes. All of us need an occasional do-over, an opportunity to make something good happen out of the goofs and missteps, which don’t make us look good in the eyes of our maker or our fellow human beings. So, though it might be easy to point an accusing finger at another when they trip up, very likely our accusations toward others could be directed at ourselves. Maya Angelou once said this: “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.”[i] Reflecting on this scripture and Angelou’s observation Pastor Joann Haejong Lee and associate pastor of the House of Hope in St. Paul, Minnesota says: “The first truth (knowing ourselves to be creations of God) secures our own selves in who we are, reminding us that we are the Lord’s. The second (everyone and everything are also God’s creations) challenges us to include others in that promise.”[ii]
We have so many opportunities to live into God’s perfect forgiveness and make it our own. Yes, we probably will need a good bit of latitude, a lot of forgiveness for our failings from God, and a whole lot of God’s grace and love. We are going to need more than one do-over in our lives and even then, we may not get it perfect but we move forward toward perfection seeking out ways to invite God’s help and God’s grace-filled forgiveness and seeking further to be more openly abundant in our willingness to forgive others. Pastor Lee says, “We are expected not only to forgive but to forgive repeatedly.”[iii] That’s challenging but not impossible. We have God’s promise. Amen.