This passage makes me think about forgiveness, even though the word never appears.
Stick with me.
Jesus teaches a number of different things about forgiveness through the gospels. First, in the first gospel story in Mark about forgiveness, a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus and before Jesus heals him, he declares that he’s forgiven. Everyone is more shocked by the forgiveness than by a paralyzed person getting up and walking off. Because forgiveness is something God does. And here is Jesus, a human—a special human, but human for sure—forgiving. Jesus seems to say that forgiveness is not just God’s business, but it’s our business, too.
Second, later in Mark, Jesus says before you pray you need to forgive anything you have against anyone. Anything. Against anyone. Before you even pray. This feels like an impossibly high bar to me. Maybe there is something true about getting our own heart clear before we can connect with God. Maybe. But it sure sounds daunting. I’m not sure I could ever really pray if I have to forgive everyone for everything first.
Third, we all know the line in the Lord’s prayer. We ask God to forgive us the way we forgive. That means that if we want to be forgiven, we need to be people of forgiveness. The measure we receive is the measure we give. Do we want unconditional forgiveness? Then we need to be people of unconditional forgiveness. Also, a high bar.
Jesus says these things about forgiving anyone anything and being forgiven the way we forgive, but he also says other things, like this passage where forgiveness is linked with honest confrontation, the need for a change in behavior, and setting boundaries. When someone harms you, you go to them. You talk with them. If they don’t get it, you bring in someone else and go back to them. Then, you bring your community into the conversation. And if there’s no change, you separate yourself.
This isn’t a perfect system. Sometimes harm is done this way. Sometimes this has been used to shun or excommunicate people. And yet, I also think there’s wisdom here. Naming the harm that’s been done, holding people accountable, setting boundaries—this is healthy stuff. There’s a difference between reconciliation and forgiveness. Sometimes reconciliation is healthy and possible, but sometimes it’s not. Forgiveness does not mean you have to become best friends with the cousin who abused you or sitting down to dinner every night with the ex-spouse who cheated on you.
Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, but reconciliation is not a precondition for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an internal work that we go through over time. Jesus says forgiveness is something that happens again and again and again. It’s an ongoing work. It’s nuanced. It’s not a black and white, once and done sort of thing. It’s a process we go through. Again, and again. Seventy-seven times if that’s what it takes.
We do it for ourselves and for the other person. Both. To be forgiven is to be set free. To forgive is to be set free. What we bind, we’re bound to. What we set loose, we’re freed from. It takes time. Seventy-seven times sometimes.