Of all the disciples we see in the gospels, Peter is one of my favorites. Maybe it’s because he’s mentioned more than any other of the original Twelve, but still, as my students would say, Peter is always “keeping it real.” He’s the most brilliant fool that ever lived. Peter was the first of apostles to declare that Jesus was the Messiah, and almost immediately, he gets his hand whacked with a ruler for arguing with Jesus about what’s going to happen next. Peter is the master of, “Yes, but….”
Today’s gospel is no exception. Peter’s folly, foibles, wild enthusiasms, and impulses remind us again and again that, yes, even the leaders of God’s people are JUST LIKE US. Peter literally leaps before he looks, like when he jumps over the side of boat when Jesus says that he, too, can walk on water. The problem is that his trust in Jesus’s promises pretty much fades the second the water begins to lap against his ankles. Peter is an eye-witness to most of Jesus’s miracles, but is also the first to deny Jesus when the truth could mean his own neck. Peter is, nonetheless, the first to preach to the Gentiles, and was the first apostle to perform a miracle, and was the leader of the early Church in those dark days depicted early in Acts. Peter reminds us that, again and again, the men and women called by Jesus to follow him are the least likely, and often most flawed, people. Yet called they remain.
And I think that’s important to remember as we look at Peter’s questions about how many times he should forgive someone who has wronged him. In the verses right before today’s gospel selection, Jesus had reminded the apostles that he had given them authority to forgive and to bring about reconciliation among the community of followers Jesus was gathering. That “authority” thing is tricky—those who have ever had real authority know that it’s a responsibility, certainly not a privilege, or else one inevitably abuses that authority by making their power about themselves and not about the community.
In talking about seeking reconciliation during the conflicts that are inevitable whenever two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name, Jesus taught that it was up to the Church to work things out with each other. Jesus authorized them to gently but firmly confront those who had hurt others within the community. It was their duty not to cover up problems, not to lie to themselves about disagreements and hurtful words or acts that wound, but to face up to them, and try to truly and honestly love each other, as flawed as we all are. Jesus gave them—and us– the authority and responsibility to work things out.
Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel is about how this newborn, diverse, counter-cultural community of Jesus-lovers is supposed to get along with each other. Remember, this is the chapter in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep appears. Right after that parable, Jesus talks about reproving those lost sheep—or even those who aren’t exactly lost but who have started to do their own thing at the expense of others in the flock– and about trying to draw them back into right relationship through love, not vengeance. Jesus then concludes, “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” And here comes Peter in our gospel reading, looking for a loophole, just like all of us. “Yes, but– Lord, how MANY times do I have to forgive?” Peter asks. Well, let’s admit it—we all are wondering that. Peter’s just the one who is brave enough to go ahead and ask the question that is on all of our hearts.
Jesus’s answer is that, if we are keeping count, we really aren’t forgiving in the first place, and we are weighing ourselves down with bitterness and hypocrisy, besides. We are all headstrong in our own ways. We often forget to consider how others will be affected by our actions. And certainly, we all sometimes foolishly want to clutch rapier-sharp past hurts to us rather than let them go, and then use them to justify our own retaliation in the name of justice. And if we do that, and refuse to understand the cost to others—well, we have already cut ourselves off from all we have pledged to hold dearer than ourselves.
We are not being told to forgive without first trying to clear the air and be honest with our brother or sister when they have hurt us or caused disruption within the community. We are given the authority to forgive, or not to forgive, but we are to remember how many times we ourselves have been in need of forgiveness before we decide to do that binding or loosing. We are reminded in the verses before our gospel that the person who has hurt us, or who has hurt the community, needs to be willing to reconcile, too. They need to loose, or open, their hearts to hear the presentment of their brothers and sisters, to own their wrong, and to determine to truly try to turn away from causing more harm. We are bound to be penitent and seek reconciliation when we have hurt others, no matter our justification. We are also bound to forgive—or else not expect forgiveness ourselves.
But God’s justice is not according to human notions of balance, and thanks be to God for that. If we were truly honest with ourselves, we are forgiven far more than we forgive, in magnitude and in multitude. In all things, Jesus keeps reminding us that we are to be open-hearted, to lower our defenses because we are among friends, and frankly, that attitude alone would nip a lot of our later sins in the bud. The way of forgiveness is the way of lightness and freedom. God’s justice is based upon a generous, abundant grace that doesn’t keep score—and neither should we.
Leslie Scoopmire is a newly retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She will attend Eden Theological Seminary beginning in the fall of 2014. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.