Forgiving Uncertainty

Then Peter came up and said to Him, “Lord, how many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy-seven times.”

Matthew 18:21-35

September 17, 2023, Words By: Joel Aguilar, Image By: Andres Ramos

Made Flesh

I really like to have the right answers. That’s why, when I started my theological studies many years ago, I struggled with my own inclinations toward legalism. Legalism was comfortable for me. It spared me from the complexities of life because it often provided straightforward responses grounded in phrases like, “because the Bible says so.” It took time for me to realize that a legalistic, literal interpretation of scripture wasn’t the sole way to read the Bible, and, in fact, it could stifle life’s beautiful complexity.

What’s more, moralistic and literal interpretations of Scripture are key ingredients for violence and scapegoating. In essence, the more rigidly we adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible, the less inclined we may be to forgive and extend grace to others. I would dare to say that by adopting a more allegorical and non-violent approach to interpreting Scripture, we open our hearts more fully to the movement of the Spirit and her forgiveness.

I can’t say that I’ve mastered a non-violent reading of the Bible. It has taken the Spirit more than a decade to gently push the Word to set me free through its untamable wildness. That is why I identify with Peter in this week’s lectionary reading. Peter wants a clear, black and white, unequivocal answer to his question about forgiveness.

Peter’s question, “How many times shall my brother sin against me and I still forgive him?” is profoundly sincere. This is a deep and honest question asked by a man that may have had a lot to forgive. I believe this type of question only arises from someone who has endured repeated harm, carrying the weight of pain inflicted by others.

I also believe that Peter’s question is about more than just forgiveness. He wants a straightforward solution to life’s complexities. I can imagine his frustration growing as he hears Jesus’ parables over and over again. I can almost hear his internal dialogue: “Can there be an easy parable for once? Can we forgive once and be done? Or maybe just seven times? Because that already seems like a lot!”

However, Jesus invites us into the free flowing and unbounded nature of the Spirit at work through forgiveness. His response to Peter mirrors a child learning to count, inventing the most colossal number they can fathom. To Peter, and to all of us, Jesus’ reply seems almost absurd: seventy-seven times, or perhaps seventy times seven, depending on your interpretation of the original Greek.

Then, Jesus proceeds to tell a story that seems incredibly lifelike. It’s about a man who was invited to live in forgiveness but could not let go of his own legalism. At the end of the parable, Jesus leaves us with some enigmatic words: “my heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

I don’t have a straightforward answer for what this means. I want to sit in the complexity of life believing that perhaps these words, like the earlier response of seventy times seven, challenge us to reevaluate our perceptions.

Perhaps the one unforgivable sin isn’t about divine retribution but our failure to extend forgiveness, both to ourselves and others, as we inevitably hurt one another. It’s not a consequence imposed by an evil deity waiting for our missteps, but a self-inflicted poison we imbibe when we choose not to forgive, mistakenly believing someone else will die from its effects.

Dwelling Among Us

In what areas of your life do you crave certainty and straightforward answers?

Pray the Suscipe (Take and Receive – Ignatian Prayer): “Take Lord and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding and my entire will, all that I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you Lord I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. I ask only for your love and your grace. That is enough.”

About The Author

Joel Aguilar