Mother Emanuel AME church has long been known as one of the most prominent African American churches in the US. It is the oldest AME church south of Baltimore. It has hosted speakers of the likes of Booker T. Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It has been the site for civil rights gatherings and black lives matter meetings. It is a church of rich tradition and heritage.
But on June 17, 2015, its history took another turn. On that summer evening, Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, entered the building of Mother Emmanuel. Church members were gathered for a Bible Study that evening. Roof sat among members, for about an hour before he pulled out a gun and shot and killed 9 of the people in the room. Among the victims were Bible Study teachers, choir members, and pastors.
Roof was soon arrested and then tried in December of 2016. He was convicted of 33 federal hate crime and murder charges.
During his sentencing, family members and friends of those who had been gunned down that night had the opportunity to address Roof directly. While many tried to make sense of the tragedy with words that spoke to their pain and loss, rightfully so, Dan Simmons, the son of Rev. Simmons, one of the men killed that night, stood up and said to Roof, “I forgive you.”
He said, “You may not understand it… but I forgive you.”
In the midst of his loss and tragedy and pain Dan Simmons stood before his father’s killer and mustered those words, I forgive you. He said his faith called him to do it.
Forgiveness is one of those things that is written into the DNA of our faith. It is at the heart of what we say God does for us and it is part of the crucial foundation of who Jesus was and the way he saw the world. And forgiveness, real forgiveness, is more than just accepting an “I’m sorry.” It is transformative. It is in forgiving and accepting forgiveness—that the universe opens up for a brief moment and the light of God rushes through.
Now before we get too far down this road, I want to be very clear about something. Forgiveness is a crucial part of human relationships, and we are going to get into all of that. But it bears saying: being subjugated to toxicity or abuse is not ok. There are times that forgiveness must happen within your own heart for your own inner peace because reconciling with an abuser is not possible. We pray for them and for healing but by no means am I saying that you must subject yourself to abuse. Sometimes the best we can do is to offer forgiveness from a distance so that we might find that inner peace. I think it is important to say that.
Now to dive into forgiveness from the biblical texts. Today’s gospel lesson is one of the more famous passages from the gospels. Peter comes to Jesus asking “How many times should I forgive someone who sins against me?” And Peter answers his own question with an answer I am sure he thought was excessive. He says, “Should I forgive as many as seven times?”
And Jesus responds: “Seven? Try something more like seventy times seven.”
And then to illustrate his point, as Jesus often does, he tells a parable: Now in this parable, there is a king, presumably the God figure, who forgives the debts of one of his slaves. The King calls in one of his slaves who owes 10,000 talents. Now one talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages. So this guy was in debt so badly that it would take him 15,000 years to pay it off. Jesus uses this exaggerated figure to make his point. It is way more than the slave would ever be able to pay. It is suggested by one of the lords that this slave just be sold along with his wife, children, and possessions to take care of the debt. This slave, though, addresses the King directly and throws himself on the ground and begs for time to repay the debt. And the King- out of pity for the man- forgave him of all of his debt.
So, this slave, who has been forgiven a debt which our minds probably cannot even comprehend, goes immediately and seizes a fellow slave, his equal and grabs him by the throat and says “pay me what you owe!” 100 denarii- which would have been the equivalent of about 100 days’ labor.
But the man was unable to pay that debt, and so the slave threw him into jail until he was able to pay what he was owed. And other members of the community saw this and were deeply distressed and reported back to their lords. The King caught wind of it and summoned the slave and said “You wicked slave. I forgave you- should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I have had mercy on you?”
Sometimes we go out into the world, with the gifts that have been given to us with scales still over our eyes so that are unable to see how we might use those gifts to help others.
Now: the context of this passage within Matthew bears mentioning. Just before this passage in Matthew 18, Jesus gives instructions about how to settle an argument. He says if someone sins against you, try to have a discussion with just the two of you. If that doesn’t work, then go with two or three witnesses so that others might witness the exchange. If then, if you are unable to reconcile, then you treat them in a pagan or tax collector, meaning you have the right to take them to court.
This instruction, in our Western context, can seem too imposing or imperative, but within the context of the biblical world, the unity of the body of the church was so important that reconciling within the body was crucial. Before you go involving pagan systems that might shed a poor light on Christ followers, try your darndest to work it out inside of the house. Remember: this is during a time that the church was being persecuted so you try to draw as little attention as possible.
But reconciling the body—keeping the flock together– was important. And just before these instructions on resolving a dispute, we have the parable of the 100 sheep. This gospel writer is doing something intentionally. You know the story: the one sheep wanders off, perhaps on their own regard, and gets lost. The shepherd goes and searches diligently. The shepherd is willing to leave the 99 so that the one might be returned to the fold. Reconciliation is essential to the teachings of Christ.
And Matthew sets us up for Peter’s question:
“How many times should I forgive?” Peter asks. More than you think. Jesus’ answer points to the more. 70×7 followed by a parable about being forgiven and going out and being forgiving. It is about adopting a God-like-mercy. You are to see others the way that God would see them.
In fact, in the Greek, this would have communicated much more clearly. The word for mercy in this text is the Greek word “eleos”. Eleos conveys this mercy that can only be likened to that of the loyalty of a covenant God would make. It is pity and compassion. It’s mercy. It’s: regardless of what you’ve done, God is willing to reconcile because God’s very nature is love. And in love, there is no grudge. There is no half-forgiveness. There is only eleos.
And it isn’t mercy- like being willing to be walked over. But it is like a covenant. It’s active: Willing to stand up for. But in the same breath, this is also the Greek word where we get the English translation for tender mercies. It’s a both/and.
It is likened to that of the Hebrew word “hesed”. Hesed is that word in the Hebrew text that English just cannot give a good translation. It is one of the words in my favorite verse Micah 6:8- What does God require of you? To Do Justice, Love Mercy, and to Walk humbly with God.
Love mercy. Or in Hebrew, Aha-bah Hesed.
Often, hesed gets a wimpy translation just like eleos: it’s mercy or kindness. But hesed at its core is more like holy covenant. And the best way I know to explain Hesed or eleos in modern terms like that of a marriage. In most cases, when someone enters into a marriage relationship, they are choosing that other person, through good times and bad, sickness and health, all of the ups and downs. You choose to walk with that person through everything life throws at you. It is a covenant relationship.
This is hesed: Extending mercy through the bad and hard times.
We are called love hesed.
We are called to offer eleos.
So, when Jesus tells Peter- you must forgive 70×7 times, it doesn’t seem to me that he is just being a smartass. He is inviting Peter to adopt a God-like attitude towards others. To see others as God would see them. To protect the flock. To not be satisfied with just the 99 of the sheep. But to search for that one sheep and return it to the fold. Because the body is not whole unless the one is reconciled.
Jesus is inviting Peter into eleos. Jesus is offering a way of Hesed.
And this eleos is the way of Jesus. He is always pointing to the more in the world. He is always inviting his followers to see things from a slightly different lens. He is always pulling back the fabric of the world so that we can see the real that lies just beneath the surface. So, when it comes to this mercy stuff- forgiving one time is just the beginning. Asking if forgiving 7 times is enough is missing the point.
It is being about God-mercy. It is about being so rooted in this eleos that when the storms come, and they do, that we don’t give up on a brother or a sister. But we are willing to be open to vulnerability and hope for change.
Now, the end of this passage can be a little disconcerting upon the first reading. Let’s get back to it: “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger, his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he should pay back all he owed. And Jesus concludes, ‘This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’”
Now- some do interpret this literally. It is a fear-motivated faith. We do these things that are good here on this earth so that we aren’t punished when we cross that rainbow bridge. The only reason for doing good is so that we might be rewarded instead of tortured.
But I just don’t see that here. Jesus is talking about forgiveness. Jesus shows God as this person who would forgive someone a debt of 15,000 years.
The exaggerated nature of this story demonstrates the larger point: God’s willingness to do anything to forgive you means that you should do likewise.
And I don’t know if you have ever found yourself holding a grudge—but I have. Watching a relationship that is dear to you deteriorate because you’re not willing to forgive or be forgiven: that eats at you from the inside out. It is like cancer that slowly steals the life away from you. And that, in my opinion, is torturous and suffocating. Much like being handed over to jailers and tortured.
Instead, there is freedom in forgiveness. The chains that bind us to pain, hurt, and sorrow can be undone. Forgiveness opens us up to the love that Jesus came to demonstrate. When Jesus instructs his disciples how to pray, one of six statements is: forgive us our trespasses so that we can forgive those who trespass against us.
It is at the heart of this Jesus stuff. It is at the heart of Christianity. And it leads us to the heart of God.
May you forgive.
And may you accept forgiveness.