"Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?"  Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” Matthew 18: 21-22.

It is interesting to note that today’s Gospel coincides with the tenth anniversary of what is known as 9/11. Ten years ago the world witnessed a most horrific event which destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York City and claimed close to three thousand lives. A natural response to such events is to seek revenge and to call for the blood of the perpetrators. This spontaneous reaction can be seen as a natural human stance when people encounter situations of violence, death and destruction that put civil society in jeopardy.

Within the past weeks, we have experienced a number of serious crimes which have shocked the nation. What has been our response? Many have made calls for the gallows to swing; some have asked for longer prison sentences; in some quarters people have suggested the formation of vigilante groups. These cries are understandable but they will not solve the problems which are before us. We have to admire the Attorney General for his courage in publicly stating that no one will be sent to gallows under his watch. Not many public officials have the guts to stand in public and make such a statement.

What should Christians do when confronted with situations like 9/11, murder and other heinous crimes? A similar question is asked by Peter in today’s Gospel. What should we do when a member of the community sins? What should I do when a member of the community sins against me? The answer is clear: “Forgive.” We must be willing to forgive not only seven times, but seventy times even.

Forgiveness is a process which takes time. For many people it is a struggle and a test of their Christian belief. We have to sympathise with all who find it difficult to forgive and pray that God will give them all that they need to offer forgiveness to persons who have wronged them. Forgiveness is difficult; but as Christians we always have to strive after the ideal.

Many people misunderstand the Christian concept of forgiveness. The purpose of forgiveness is to seek reconciliation, mend broken relationships and avoid vengeance, which can make a bad situation worse. Forgiveness is an integral part of Christianity and it follows from the teaching of Jesus Christ. No one who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ can dismiss or jettison this aspect of his teaching.
Peter’s concern is ours; what should we do when a member of the community sins or when someone sins against us?

Forgiveness is to put away whatever has been the cause of the pain, hurt and disappointment we have suffered as a result of people’s actions. It does not mean we will forget, but it allows for healing and restoration to wholeness. The individual benefits physically, mentally and spiritually when he or she is able to forgive; this concept of forgiveness is captured in Jesus’ words to many persons whom he healed; “Go and sin no more.” Forgiveness as healing is important for human relationships and community life. Without it life will be a miserable experience and the society will always be a fractured unit.

In Luke’s Gospel it would appear that forgiveness depends on the offender seeking it from the one he or she has wronged: “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17:3). In Matthew, it is something we do without waiting for the offender to repent. I subscribe to the view that we do not have to wait for the offender to repent. We should forgive people their sins/wrongs against us without them having to first come to us saying ‘ I am sorry’. Before the person comes we must go and meet him/her, something like what the father did in the story of the two sons.  Forgiveness is beneficial to the forgiver. It releases us from the past, gives us peace of mind and it enables us to overcome the poisonous thoughts of revenge, hate, grudge and the like, which have the potential to make us sick.  I posit the view that the person who forgives has more to gain than the person who is forgiven.

The process of forgiveness can be painful for the offender and the one who forgives. For the offender the pain comes when he or she has to acknowledge his or her faults which can affect his or her standing in the community. It takes courage for the offender to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness is costly to the one who forgives; he or she has to give up his or her power over the offender. “Love does not keep a record of wrong.”

Forgiveness within the context of forgiving seventy times seven speaks of unconditional and limitless forgiveness. In this vein we love the offender but dislike the sin. We still see the person as our neighbour who is deserving of our love, mercy and kindness. He or she is still a child of God.

One should note the connection between God’s forgiveness of our sins and our forgiveness of those who have done us wrong. Jesus’ teaching highlights this concept: “but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:15). A similar sentiment is found in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” The gospels imply that unless we are willing to forgive those who sin against us we cannot receive God’s forgiveness.

We are obligated to forgive but it does not mean we allow ourselves to become a door mat. It does not mean to accept foolishness. It does not mean that we allow people to take advantage of us. It does not mean that we allow people to take us for a ride. Yes, we are obligated to forgive the offender, but at the same time we must protect and safeguard our human and civil rights, seek our personal peace and uphold our dignity. Forgiveness does not mean to be stupid or foolish.

What should one do if one finds oneself in an abusive relationship? Abusive relationships are not good for people. They affect people’s self-esteem, do great psychological damage to them, affect them mentally and physically and in some cases their violence can lead to death. Why should one remain in an abusive relationship that is not going anyway or show no sign of reconciliation? What would be Jesus’ advice to one who is at the receiving end in an abusive relationship? I think he would say forgive your partner but I don’t think he would expect you to stay in the relationship. In the final analysis it’s a personal choice which each individual has to make.

The Christian idea of forgiveness forms an important part in church teaching and its life and witness. It can be a real challenge for many of us, but as disciples of Christ we have no other option but to forgive and love.

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