What are the limits of forgiveness? Peter asked Jesus that question in this week’s reading and I think we are still asking it. Our current age doesn’t put much stock in forgiveness. It claims that to forgive someone is to give them a pass, a break from justice. It is a way for the strong to abuse the weak and get away with it. Only the radical post-modernists will say as much, but don’t be surprised to find that members of your own parish will articulate the germ of this thought. Forgiveness makes one a doormat, a weakling, a person who is taken advantage of. This has been around for a very long time but it is ascendant today. But it was ascendant in Paul’s day in the Roman empire too. Romans did not forgive, they either dominated or were dominated. It was the only dynamic they understood. Christianity came and preached another way to imagine human society and eventually the Christian message gained traction and it came to define the parts of the world where Christianity obtained. But the old way, the way of power and retribution, never went away. At times it has reasserted itself powerfully. We live in one of those times.
Jesus and his disciples after Him, preached a wholly other way for human beings to live with one another. As Paul says in Eph 5, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” He was not original in that idea. Jesus was saying it here and in scores of other places in our bibles. John tells us that Christ abides in us when we love (I Jo. 4). The Roman culture took about 300 years for substantive changes to be noticed. We see it in the decisions made by the wealthy elites of the late 4th century. They gave up their colossal wealth to feed the poor and help the less fortunate. But it took a long time. Paul would submit to death, as would all but one of the disciples. This is not an easy sermon to preach or always a pleasant task to undertake. Yet, Jesus’ message remains clear and the same. The forgiveness we have received and which we speak is boundless. It is powered by the Holy Spirit and it is from God Himself. It is enough for every sin.