This Sunday will mark the tenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. It will be a somber day of remembering the dead and honoring those who modeled what Jesus once called the greatest form of love – that of laying down one’s life for others. It will also be a day in which all Americans will recall the horrors which, for most of us, were previously unimaginable and still incomprehensible. In doing so, old wounds will resurface. Even for those of us who witnessed the events of 9/11 thousands of miles removed from Ground Zero, there is a reasonable, palpable sense of having been harmed, wronged, deeply affected.
Because this is our context for worship this weekend, our text from the Gospel of Matthew will be particularly challenging. Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who has hurt him. “Is seven times enough?” Apparently, upon being hurt by someone for the eighth time, Peter has finally had enough. Only Jesus will not make Peter’s predicament any easier. “Peter,” he says, “if you want to do the math on forgiveness, then try seventy times seven” (18:22).
It could easily be said that what distinguishes the Christian faith from all other religious traditions is the unmistakable and unavoidable command of Jesus to forgive those who have wronged us. In the face of mistreatment and injustice, some traditions subscribe to the principle of “an eye for an eye” and the law of retribution; others hold to the principle of karma, believing that what goes around will eventually come back around and the offender will get what’s coming to him; and still others hold to a belief in an emotional detachment from the world and the elimination of desire – even the desire to settle the score and exact justice. But with Jesus, along comes this idea called forgiveness – love’s interruption of the consequences of our actions, a tipping of the scales toward grace, a loosening of the cords that keep us bound to bitterness and anger.
It was Jesus’ Big Idea, and it’s our biggest hurdle. Shouldn’t there be limits to our forgiveness? For the sake of self-protection and preservation, shouldn’t grace leave a little room for justice from time to time? If not, how will evil ever be stopped?
I do not know why this teaching shows up in our lectionary on a day when we remember the atrocities of 9/11. I only know that, because it does, we would do well to hear it speak to us again, in new and challenging ways. What does it mean for us, at this time, on this particular day? What does it mean for our personal relationships? Are there some offenses for which forgiveness is impossible, or even unreasonable?