Four hundred and ninety prayers of forgiveness (or more)

Thoughts on the Gospel reading for Year 2, Proper 14, Thursday: Matthew 18:21-19:1

The Gospel reading at Mass Thursday morning was from Matthew, where Peter asks Jesus about forgiveness.  Peter asks, “How often should I forgive?” (Mt. 18:21). And Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times,” or as older scriptures put it, “seventy times seven.” Jesus may be referring to a story in Genesis, or he may be expressing the fullest possible bounds of forgiveness by using the number seven to represent completeness and multiplying it.  Whatever the case, his point is clear. We should pray for those who wrong us, slight us, harm us, ignore us, or belittle us—whether that person be an outright enemy or simply a stranger who annoys.  “Pray for them,” Jesus says.        

But,” I want to say.  But, what about when I’m in the right?  What about the person who stays in the wrong traffic lane until the last possible moment, and then cuts in front of me?  What about the person in the airport security line who brings scissors, knives, and over-sized shampoo, delaying everyone?  “Pray for them,” Jesus says.

And then more seriously, what about the politicians who bend the truth, or who create division in order to win votes?  What about the companies that ignore their workers? What about thieves and thugs and swindlers?  My list of resentments grows and grows and grows. “Forgive them,” Jesus says.  “Pray for them.”

In telling us to pray and to forgive, I don’t think Jesus is necessarily offering us some final, overarching solution to the problem of evil in the world.  Instead, he’s offering us a way to save our souls.  By praying for my enemy, I let my anger out.  I name what’s eating at me and more importantly, I place the offending person in the hands of God, where he or she belongs.  What God does with that person is God’s business, but I’ve done my part, and I’ve moved closer to Jesus.       

This doesn’t answer why people take up guns or plant bombs.  It doesn’t answer why people separate from friends, family, or community.  But it does give me a way to keep myself close to Christ, to remain in community with other believers, and to allow the possibility of forgiveness to exist for others and for myself.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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