How often must I forgive my brother or sister if they wrong me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.
Like most of us, I have known at times how painful it is not to be forgiven. Maybe I am deluded, but I don’t find it as hard to forgive (given a bit of time) as to feel that I am refused this wonderful grace that changes not only relationships but the world and advances the reign of God.
When you seem to have resolved in yourself a mistake or a fractured relationship; when enough time has passed and people have got on with their lives, moved on, you might then feel ready to reach out and try for reconciliation. Until forgiveness happens, the unhappy feeling of something blocked and unfinished stops deep healing from beginning. For peace and justice it’s not enough just for hurt feelings to subside. Forgiveness is ontological, deeper than feeling. There is no going back to the past: some relationships stay there, in personal history. But our natural thirst and hunger for justice is not about either forgetting or apportioning blame. It is about conscious restoration and re-balancing.
When Jesus says not 7 but 77 he shows the attentive listener that there is no justice without forgiveness. No hope of justice restoring our humanity unless we are truly open to forgiveness. When I hear people confess they ‘cannot forgive so-and-so for this-or-that’ I often detect a sense of shame and self-justification. Behind it is the sense ‘it’s not my fault and I would if I could.’ Of course we need to forgive those who cannot forgive. For that matter, we have to forgive ourselves for not forgiving. But also we need not to confuse forgiveness with a self-justified attachment to a grudge or victimhood (for the sake of the injured party first and for the injuring party second). How do we tell the difference? Perhaps by seeing how we feel if the party who offended us moves on and flourishes.
Forgiveness is inner healing not the bestowing of pardon. One day we understand it’s happened already when we weren’t watching. We receive the grace of forgiveness subtly (and can then share it actively) after we have passed through the 77 questions that penetrate all the dark corners of our heart: What do I really feel? Why did X act the way they did? Am I seeking wholeness or clinging to retribution? Do I ‘love my enemy’ meaning that they are no longer my enemy (even if I wouldn’t choose to go on holiday with them).
This insight into forgiveness comes from the one who would say on the Cross ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’ For him this was the last of the keys that opened his door to paradise.