Jesus loves to exaggerate to make a point—the literary device of hyperbole, and he is certainly on a roll with it in this morning’s Gospel reading. I do not think it is helpful to take Jesus’ use of hyperbole literally, but when he does use it we need to pay careful attention, because although he may not be speaking literally, he is speaking very, very seriously.
Here is the beginning of the passage we just heard from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message:
Be alert. If you see your friend going wrong, correct him. If he responds, forgive him. Even if it’s personal against you and repeated seven times through the day, and seven times he says, “I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,” forgive him.
Now I don’t know about you, but the third time somebody did something against me in the same day and promised not to do it again, I am over it. I imagine the apostles were thinking much the same thing, and so they said, “If that’s the case, Lord, you’ve got to increase our faith!”
Jesus’ reply about the mustard seed seems to imply that you do not need much faith to accomplish more than you can imagine, and then he goes on to say basically, “Anyway, it’s your duty.” Forgiveness is nothing special. It is the ordinary way to follow me.
The point Jesus is trying to make is that forgiveness is more than a single, solitary act you have to make once and awhile. It is, rather, a way of life. The way of love is the way of forgiveness; the life of faith is the life of forgiveness.
So here is one of the most radical things Jesus taught his followers, and it is just as radical now as it was then. We must forgive. It is central to Christian faith. Even love cannot be sustained without it.
The words “forgive” or “forgiveness” do not appear in our Baptismal Covenant, which, arguably, is the most important description of the Christian life for us. But one of the promises of the Covenant is really all about forgiveness.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
There is no way to do that without the capacity to forgive, because the question is not, “Will you seek and serve Christ in the persons who are nice to you?”
Probably the most challenging writer for me on forgiveness is an acquaintance and colleague of mine, Bill Countryman. Here are the building blocks for an understanding of forgiveness as a way of life that Bill gives:
1. What God says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. God might have said it more simply, “You are loved. I love you.” This message is true, but it would have been ambiguous. It might have meant, “I love you because you are good.” It might have meant, “I love the nice bits of you, but I really wish you’d clean up your act.” It might have meant, “I still love you and would like to go one loving you, but I won’t tolerate your behavior much longer.” Instead, God says something quite unambiguous: “You are forgiven.”
2. This good news [of forgiveness] is the beginning of a new way of living in this world. In fact, it can be the foundation of living wisely and well. The difference [this good news] makes takes the form of two gifts that we receive along with the good news and that grow along with our acceptance of it: a gift of honesty and a gift of authentic and appropriate self-love.
3. The good news you’ve heard about God’s love for you is not for you alone. God has extended the same guarantee of love to every other human being in exactly the same terms—to the person closest to you and the person you dislike the most. [This means that] every human being is loved and forgiven on exactly the same terms. This means our love for our neighbor, as for ourselves, must often take the form of forgiveness. Jesus was insistent on this point.
4. Forgiveness entails a certain letting go. It means letting go of some of my sense of wounded innocence, remembering that I, too, am less than perfect. It means letting go my excessive devaluation of my enemy…it means letting go the desire for revenge and putting something else more compatible with the good news in its place. What is this something else? Lies will not do. Forgiveness can be utterly hard-headed and clear-eyed. Forgiveness does mean [however] that I can see those who have harmed as more like myself than different and that I am prepared to build a future with them.
So there we are: Jesus’ insistence, his high calling, a way of living and loving. It must be chosen by us and worked at diligently because there is very little in this world to support it. Certainly few of our civic leaders live this way. Polarization and demonization and a kind of total war mentality have taken over Washington, the Congress at least. They are wrong and we are right and we will bring the country to its knees if that is what it takes to prove it.
I should be careful to say that the church does not do much better. It, too, is a human institution. We are a human institution and we tend to act like the world around us even if we say we believe differently. You would think it would be easier to forgive your fellow church member some slight, but that is not my experience. In fact, my experience is that church folk can nurse an old wrong as long as the best of them.
It goes without saying that is not the way it should be. How ironic and appalling it is that people who quite loudly claim to be Christians and insist that they are re-building a Christian nation, seem to know nothing about the way of forgiveness, devalue and demonize those who think differently from them and pander to a world obsessed with winners and losers.
They are not ready to build a world with those they deem sinners. It is impossible to read the Gospels and not understand with crystal clarity that Jesus was not only ready to do just that but insisted, nay demanded, that his followers do so as well.
It is hard work, I know. But it is worth every ounce of risk, struggle and pain. We hurt each other all the time. We get hurt all the time. Jesus does not want us to act as if none of it ever happened. But Jesus tells us that we cannot build a world on hurt, resentment, and revenge, at least not a world that has anything to do with God.
Search out a resentment that has taken up long term residence in your soul, right now. Bring it with you to the Altar, offer it to God and let God replace with the food of forgiveness. And keep doing it again and again, until it is your way of life.
 The points below are quotes taken from various places in L. William Countryman, The Good News of Jesus: Reintroducing the Gospel (Cowley, 1993). Countryman has also written Forgiven and Forgiving (Morehouse, 1998).