I was thinking about the Gospel reading this morning, and how as Christians, we are encouraged to acknowledge that we are not perfect, and that is why whenever we come together on Sunday, immediately following the Prayers of the People, we vocally make public confession of the things we knowingly have done wrong, and things we have done wrong unknowingly, and we ask forgiveness. And, we know that God will forgive us, because God loves us, and we love God. That’s one of the beautiful things about church. God forgives us daily, and we are instructed to forgive others, daily, just as we are forgiven.
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church 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-seven times” (Matthew 18:21) There is ambiguity in this passage on whether Jesus was quoted from the Hebrew First Testament or the Septuagint, a Greek translation. The ambiguity comes from a difference between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Septuagint (a Greek translation). Jesus is teaching to forgive by reversing the statement of Lamech in Genesis 4:24 “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Then Lamech seventy times seven.” (NASB)
The New International Version and the New Revised Standard translation follow the Hebrew, שִׁבְעִים וְשִׁבְעָֽה (shib’iym wshib’ah), which means “seventy-seven.” The New American Standard and King James Version follow the Septuagint translation, ἑβδομηκοντάκις, (hebdomekontakis), which means “seventy times seven. “If Jesus quoted the Septuagint, then He said “seventy times seven.” If He quoted the Hebrew, then He said, “seventy-seven (times).” A case could be made for either as both the Hebrew Scriptures and Greek translations of the same were in use at that time. A more important question than “which did He quote?” “What is He teaching by it?” And in this case, whether He quoted the Hebrew or Greek, the teaching is the same.
Though there is great numerical difference between seventy-seven and seventy times seven, it is not an important theological difference. Jesus is saying that His disciples should forgive as many times as it takes. If someone wrongs you once, you can recall that easily. If they wrong you three times, you can still number those rather easily. If you can list off seven times the person has wronged you, you are either keeping track or have an exceptional memory. But for either 77 or 490 wrongs, you are keeping track, and the question could be put to you have you ever forgiven even once?
We are responsible to forgive others, and to continue in that practice, just as God forgives us daily for the things we know we have done wrong to others and for those things we have done that may have hurt others, that we did unknowingly.
So, we are to forgive others 77 times or 70 x 7, (490) times. We know that that’s a lot of sevens, and sevens are a perfect number. So, to live in a perfect world, or we can say to practice forgiveness in the Kingdom of God, asking for forgiveness, receiving forgiveness, and forgiving others is a practice that makes perfect.
Or we can look at this forgiveness motif in a more literal way. These 77 or 490 times, is it a lifetime, or is it a calendar year? If it’s a calendar year, then maybe I should put it in my rector’s annual report page. I can list everyone, I have forgiven this year, and record how many times I have forgiven them. For example, I can record that I have forgiven Naomi 365 times this year, once for every day of the year, but that’s well below the threshold of 490. So, she’s not worn out her welcome in my life, at least not for this calendar year. Or, is it 490 a month, or is it a week, or does it mean that we should live a lifestyle of forgiving others? In the parable of settling accounts in our gospel reading this morning, Jesus is saying this: “If you do not forgive others, don’t expect me to forgive you either” (Matthew 18:21-35) Earlier in Matthew Jesus says plainly: “ But, if you do not forgive people their offenses, your Father will not forgive your offenses.” (Matthew 6:15)
How many of you have been hurt by someone that intentionally wronged or offended you? Next question: How many of you have been wronged or offended by someone that did not wrong you intentionally, or without knowing? It is our responsibility to forgive, but it is not our responsibility if people do us harm by what they do knowingly or unknowingly, and they do not ask for forgiveness.
Many years ago, when our children were very young, Naomi worked for a radio station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, that played country music. She was the Continuity Director, which means she kept the station on the air, when it was time for commercials, or if the DJ was taking too much time at break, her job was to make sure there was live action on the air, and not silence. The station was making budget cuts and Naomi and one other person were being considered to fill an expanded role for the work that she was already doing. Naomi did not survive the cut. The radio managers rationale to her was that the other man had children at home he had to support, even though Naomi had more experience and was more qualified.
They had a going-away party for Naomi, and at the party the manager asked this question: “Does anyone have a song that you would like me to play in Naomi’s honor today”? I responded with a song that was popular at that time. “How about, Another Somebody Did Somebody Wrong Song, by BJ Thomas?” Naomi found a different job, but was asked to come back to the station and take the job back not long after that. She turned it down. If we do not forgive others when they hurt us financially, socially or in any other way, the problem becomes greater, because if we do not forgive it can grow into bitterness, anger, self-pity or even hatred. Wrongdoings, especially if they are intentional can result in great grief or sorrow. Those burdens need to be dealt with for the sake of our health and well-being. If not, the hurt feelings will linger and cause great distress in our lives.
I worked as a Chaplain in Residence for the VA Hospitals of New York City, and my specialty was Substance Abuse and Recovery. I worked with veterans in various programs in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Some of the veterans were in the rehabilitation program for the first time, but just as many were in for the 2nd, 3rd and even the 7th time. What I appreciate about timed programs that are patterned after the AA and NA principles derived from the “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous) is this: You take one day at a time, and if you fall, start over again. And, you are never alone. God, referred to as Your Higher Power will be with you and assist you in your journey. And, not only God, but other people will be there for you too.
The Episcopal magazine, The Living Church, observes editorially: “The basis of the technique of Alcoholics Anonymous is the truly Christian principle that a man cannot help himself except by helping others”. (Page 572, Alcoholics Anonymous, New York City, 2001)
That brings us back to public confession and receiving forgiveness. We as individuals are part of the community of believers, the church, “the called-out ones”. We acknowledge together that we are not alone. We are dependent upon God, and dependent upon one another.
Let’s take a closer look at the Confessional: “Most merciful God, We confess that we have sinned against God, in thought word and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name, Amen”.
This is immediately followed with these words from the celebrant: “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you for all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life”. Now, it’s up to you to receive this pardon and assurance of forgiveness, and to leave your burdens and wrongdoings at the confessional. Do not take them with you. Look at this as the baggage claim area, but instead of taking your baggage off the conveyor belt, put them on the conveyor belt and let them be taken away.
Don’t look at this as an empty ritual. It is a time of healing, a time of forgiveness, and a time to rejoice in that forgiveness. That’s why immediately following this time of forgiveness, the celebrant then says: “The peace of the Lord be always with you”. In other words, we have laid our faults and burdens at the altar, and now we receive and walk in that Blessed Peace. I want to remind you of the placement of passing the peace, and why we do it at this point in the service. We are to remind each other, that we are not along, God is with us. God loves us, and we love you. This is the meaning of “doing church”, and therefore we pass the peace.
Passing the peace may seem like “intermission” or half-time, but it is not. It is not a time to discuss other business. It is a time to say, “God’s peace” or the Peace of the Lord be with you. The time for other talk is before or after service—or especially during coffee hour.
And, then as it is with our local custom, we do announcements and special prayers for travelers, birthday, anniversaries, and spend time talking with our children. This is immediately followed by offering, and then by Holy Eucharist. The first part of our service is called The Word of God, and it includes the readings for the day, the Gospel passage, the sermon, Prayers of the People, Public Confession, Forgiveness, and the Passing of the Peace. The second part of our service, the Holy Eucharist is known as The Great Thanksgiving.
The Word of God prepares us in sequence to the parts of the liturgy, prepares us for the Great Thanksgiving. It would not seem right to start out with the Holy Eucharist and then move through the service in the opposite direction. I think it’s important to be reminded of why we do certain things at certain times in the flow of the liturgy.
It’s really cool when we mindfully interact to the liturgy and the parts of the liturgy, why we do certain things in certain ways and at certain times of the service. Our liturgy is dependent on the Word of God, the writings of both the Old and the New Testament, and the value we put on the Holy Gospel, the emphasis on the Psalm of the day, the music which compliments the readings and the theme of the day, and the sermon. The Nicene Creed is the theology of why we do what we do, and the Prayers of the People remind us that we are not alone. We pray for those in all parts of the world, for the church in all parts of the world, and for the needs and thanksgivings of the people, family and loved ones of our local church. We then make communal public confession, and receive pardon, pass the peace and later finalize the entire service that culminates in the Great Thanksgiving.
Our Christian lives are intended to be full of Scripture, joy, peace, confession, forgiving others and being forgiven by God. It’s all reflected in our beautiful liturgies, and when we pay attention it is even more meaningful than it appears at first glance. And, this morning we highlight one of these aspects of our Christian journey. One of the beautiful things about church. God forgives us daily, and we are instructed to forgive others, daily, just as we are forgiven. Amen
The Reverend Dr. David Madsen