Then Peter came and said to him, “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 18:21-22, NRSV
A friend said that she was ready to tackle most sorts of household repair. Electric, plumbing, carpentry – but not putting up sheetrock. “It takes too much practice,” she said. “If I only put up the mud once in a while, it looks like an amateur did it.”
Practice is the price of any competency, of course. Whether it’s the athlete running drills, the instrumentalist playing scales, the designer crafting wireframes, or any of myriad learned skills. Slinging mud takes practice, too: whether finishing sheetrock or denying the dignity of people, which gets practiced a lot. The brutality we’ve witnessed in recent months, as our nation’s bone-deep racism and xenophobia bloom like a toxic mold in our public life, shows that badness, like goodness, gets more effective with practice.
Forgiveness does, too. Maybe that’s a reason that Jesus instructed Peter to forgive so often (seventy-seven times in translations; seventy times seven in others). Maybe Jesus knew that we can only hope to absolve a big offense if we build up capacity by pardoning the small slights. Or maybe Jesus, with sad wisdom, simply knew we would always be faced with a mess of offenses against us and those dear to us. Maybe Jesus knew the beloved community can handle righteous anger better than regret.
A wise teacher said that forgiveness means giving up the hope of a better past. To remember our pain, to refuse allowing those who harm us to define us, to rejoice in the beautiful work God is doing in us — that’s worth repeating. As often as seven to the seventieth power times.
Forgiving God, grant me strength for releasing past hopes, and investing myself in the shalom you are creating today. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.