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Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott


The readings for Sunday, Sept.11, 2011:

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 14:19-31

Psalm: Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 114

Psalm (Alt.): Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

The Gospel for today, at least the first part, is probably familiar to most of us. Peter is looking for the magic number of times that he must forgive--and you can tell he's annoyed, ready to cut off the person who has offended him, but he'll forgive seven times--and you know that he's probably already forgiven that person eight times. Jesus tells him he must forgive seventy times seven.

I remember in fifth grade Sunday school class where we studied this passage. We immediately got to work on the math. And if you were an obsessive child, like I had a tendency to be, you started keeping a list of how many times you had forgiven your sister.

I had unwittingly proven Jesus' point. Peter asks a stupid, juvenile question, and Jesus gives him an answer to let him know how petty he has been. By now, we should all know that Jesus didn't come to give us a new set of legalisms to follow.

Jesus then gives us a parable about the nature of forgiveness. Most of us will need more forgiveness throughout our lives than we really deserve. We are like indentured servants who can never hope to pay off our debt, but we're miraculously forgiven.

Most of us, happily, will never experience indentured servitude in the traditional sense. But in our past years of financial collapse, many of us have discovered a different kind of indebtedness. Many of us owe more on our houses than they will ever be worth again. Many of us owe more on our credit cards than we can ever repay, and we likely don’t even remember what we bought. Because of the lousy job situation throughout the country, many of us are chained to jobs that no longer satisfy. Think of how wonderful it would be if someone came in and relieved us of those debts. Think of forgiveness the same way.

Our task--and it sometimes seems more monumental than paying off a huge financial debt--is to extend that quality of forgiveness and mercy to others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Have you told those people that they're forgiven? Do they know it by your loving actions? To whom do you need to repent? What's keeping you from doing it?

And now, for the part that might be even harder for many of us—have you forgiven yourself? I've gotten fairly talented at forgiving my loved ones, but I'm still not good at forgiving myself. I'm still angry and annoyed when the struggles I thought were past me resurface. I'm still hard on myself for my shortcomings, even as I acknowledge that my shortcomings could be worse.

Fortunately, God has a higher opinion of me than I do of myself. God is willing to forgive me for my shortcomings--even as I fall short again and again.

This Sunday also marks the tenth anniversary of the attacks of 2001. It’s also the twenty-eighth anniversary of the coup which brought Pinochet to power in Chile, an event which ushered in almost 17 years of brutality against the citizens of that country. It’s the anniversary of some of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit the U.S.: Inniki in 1992, from which Kauai has only just recovered, and Carla in 1961. We may not think of these events when we think about the issue of forgiveness, but they lurk there, in the background or the foreground.

How can we possibly be expected to forgive those who have harmed us so deeply, those who have ripped away so much of what we cherished, who we cherished? Sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully, Jesus reminds us that we must forgive.

And if our capacity to forgive isn’t at 70 times 7 yet, let’s pray for an expanded ability to forgive. Let us also remember to pray for our enemies, both the personal ones and the political ones, the inner voices that berate us, the outer voices that shrilly defeat all peace initiatives, all the enemies who would undo us.

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