the penultimate WORD
Series 1999 - Proper 24  Canon Jim Irvine
"Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother?" asked Peter.

"Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother?" asked Peter.
Matthew 18: 21


For as much as we familiarize ourselves with the scriptures, and particularly the gospels, we are drawn again and again to the pattern of life that is characterized by forgiveness.

Forgiveness seems to recur at every turn. Almost as though that was all there was. Oh, the stories are certainly different. Different characters, different circumstances, different illustrations entirely, but they seem always to bring the listener back to the central theme that Jesus held out: the theme of forgiveness.

Peter presses the theme further in the gospel today. He suggests, and he is very much aware of the generosity of which he speaks, that seven times is more than an adequate expression of forgiveness.

Once is clearly not enough. And were forgiveness pronounced two or three times it might be sufficient. Beyond three times and we might consider the contrition insincere and the confession a fraud. Yes, his proposal for seven times seems more than generous.

But not to Jesus.

Jesus rebuked Peter and challenged him to extend his capacity seventy-fold.

For his brother.

The image is clear enough, but perhaps we have missed it, familiar as this passage is to us all.

We hear Peter asking, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive?"

Forgiveness seems to be the focus of Peterís question, and as it is difficult, we silently concur with Peter on his generous assessment of Jesusí good news. Peter had listened to Jesus' teaching. He had heard the many examples the Rabbi from Nazareth had given to illustrate his point. And he concluded that faith applied in this way was in order. But his question goes beyond forgiveness. Listen again.

"Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother?" asked Peter.

And Jesus, listening carefully to Peter's question recognizes that the disciple brings forgiveness to an application in daily life.

Jesus draws on Peterís relationship with his brother, and helps the disciple see that his generosity in meeting his brotherís failings is a response made because of the acknowledged relationship: a familial relationship, a relationship built of the fellowship that grew out of a closeness with Jesus.

Forgiveness isnít seen as an abstraction, as an "ideal" but rather a natural outgrowth of a relationship shared with those Jesus considered close.

Peter saw that his relationship with Jesus might be diminished and that it would be compromised should forgiveness present itself as an obstacle. Disagreement, envy, hurt, jealously might erode the closeness enjoyed. Forgiveness was not a limited option, then, and Peter felt certain that he had found a sure way to minimize the diminishment of the fellowship enjoyed by those who looked on Jesus, and by extension, each other, as brother.

He was partly right.

Jesus said that it wasnít an option at all.

Confident of his persistence to hold forgiveness as such a basic aspect of our fellowship together in Christ, disciples to this day have given forgiveness expression as an article of belief, a creedal affirmation: where a pattern of life lived in pain and courage seeks reconciliation.

Copyright © 1999 James T. Irvine

Series 1999