“Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21-22
I have always carried with me a deep sense of God’s love. While I have encountered many people who have struggled greatly with an image of God as judgmental, strict, demanding, and punishing, that has never been my struggle. During my sabbatical last summer, as I worked on a writing project to put into words my understanding of God as known in the Christian tradition, I came to a realization that was really an expansion of this deep sense of God’s love that I have always had. And that was that God is One who always moves toward us in a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity. I have come to see how clearly this shape of divine love is revealed and known in Jesus.
And Jesus invites us into an imitation of this shape of divine love. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The term “father” (or, more accurately, “daddy”) is the primary term Jesus uses to talk about God, especially in John’s Gospel. A little later in this same passage, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (see John 14:8-17). Here, John seeks to make clear that what Jesus enacts in his own life and ministry is an enactment of the divine love, revealing the shape of that love. We, who are meant to do even greater things than Jesus, are called to similarly enact the divine love in the living of our own lives. We look to Jesus as the one who reveals this love to us, and we see him constantly moving toward others in this love shaped as forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.
Within this context, then, it is not surprising that, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that appears at the beginning of this post, Jesus challenges Peter’s attempt to place a limit on one aspect of this love: forgiveness. How often should I forgive someone who wrongs me?, Peter asks. Seven times? No, says Jesus, try seventy times seven (some variants read “seventy-seven times”). I hope it is clear that Jesus is not saying, “490 times”. Rather, he is using this mathematical expression to point to the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and, thus, of our forgiveness. God’s infinite love is infinitely forgiving, and this is what we are being asked to enact in our own lives, as we live into our call to be conduits of God’s love in the world.
This deepened understanding of the shape of the divine love has shown up quite a bit in my preaching since I returned from my sabbatical last fall. Some of those who have to listen to my sermons might say it has shown up a bit too often! Those sermons have always been, one might say, at a high level view. That is, as we consider how we are to approach our fellow human beings in general, we are called to do so with a love shaped like the divine love.
Of course, people don’t live their lives at a high level. People live their lives on the ground, within particular contexts, and with very particular people. And, living life on the ground can include a lot of pain. And so it was that I was recently reminded, by someone who’s life on the ground has included being the victim of emotional abuse, that this preaching on the need to approach others with limitless forgiveness has not been good news. Rather, it has felt very much like the opposite. It has sounded as though I am suggesting that there are no limits, and it has sounded to this person like an invitation to give an abuser a pass — and that feels like asking too much. It feels like God might be okay with abuse. It is asking too much, and God is not okay with abuse.
Hearing this very real testimony about very real pain has gotten me to thinking about the limits of forgiveness. And it has helped me to see how limitless Jesus tends to be in the gospels. After all, we are told that as Jesus was being crucified by his abusers, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). So what are we to do in the face of those who do genuinely bad things to others? What are we to do with those who do genuinely bad things to us, things that are simply not okay? How are we to live forgiveness and preach forgiveness in the face of these painful realities?
I’m not sure I yet have a good answer to these questions. And, more importantly, I’m not sure that I have the right to do so in any more than a tentative way. While I have certainly been hurt by others’ actions in the course of my life so far, I have never been victimized by someone else. I am not a victim of abuse. And, therefore, I do not think it is for me to say what forgiveness can or should look like in the life of someone who has been victimized. I can have compassion for those who have been victimized, but I cannot enter into their experience.
One of the things that seems clear to me as I look again at Jesus’ enactment of the divine love is that Jesus does not accept the ethical categories proclaimed by the privileged of his own time and tradition. Instead, Jesus places himself among those who are the victims of those ethical proclamations, and he empowers them. He gives them voice. This pattern suggests to me that when it comes to deciding what is ethical, Jesus does not begin at the center and move outward. Rather, he begins at the edges, and moves inward. Ethics are to be informed by the victims, not by the powerful. One might say that Jesus does theology from the margins. And, as we seek to imitate his example, we cannot ignore this aspect of his ministry.
So, where does this leave me? I remain convinced that God’s movement toward us is, indeed, a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity. Jesus’ living out of this in such a limitless way is perhaps meant to challenge the limits that we tend to adopt — and, like Peter, most of us tend to impose a limit too soon and too quickly. But this does not mean that Jesus does not consider certain kinds of behavior to be wrong. As he goes among the victims of his time, he is clearly saying that whatever happened to make them victims was wrong. He is not saying that their victimization is okay. He is not giving the powerful wrong-doers of his society a pass. Indeed, his ministry among the victims of his time acts as an indictment of those wrong-doers. We could, perhaps, sum it up this way: it is never okay to make someone your victim.
It is tempting for those of us who have not been someone’s victim to suggest how those who have been made victims should enact the divine love when it comes to dealing with those who victimized them. But that, I think, is wrong. It risks making others into victims again. Rather, we must be like Jesus, I think, and go among the victims in today’s world. We must listen to their stories, we must hear their struggles, and we must ask them to take the lead in showing us what the limits of forgiveness are. We must learn from them how our proclamation of the love of God is heard in the ears of those who have been abused.
God’s forgiveness may indeed be without limit. But to protect the dignity of every human being, there might indeed need to be a limit to our forgiveness. We could, I think, give that limit a name: justice, which itself is a powerful and recurring biblical theme. Justice is, of course, not revenge, but it is a clear calling out of wrong-doing as exactly that. Justice permits no hiding, it does not allow wrong-doing to be justified. It demands that the making of another person into a victim be acknowledged, and it asks for repentance — which is more than being sorry, but is a deep conversion away from the making of victims and toward a way of living that affirms and preserves the dignity of all the people in one’s life. It seems to me that perhaps, in situations of injustice, forgiveness cannot truly be given or received until the injustice is acknowledged in the way that justice demands.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3). This is what justice requires: a bringing into the light of all that is not light.
The love and forgiveness of God, where it is truly manifest, brings a light that illuminates everything. If someone is holding on to darkness, if someone is truly refusing to allow the light to shine on the ways in which that person has caused pain to others, can there truly be forgiveness? Perhaps not. Perhaps the forgiveness must wait until the darkness can be let go of, and the light can shine clearly. Perhaps forgiveness needs repentance.