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The 78th time: forgiving people over and over is definitely worth a try, but eventually you get to let those trespassers have it. Right?

I RAN OUT OF FORGIVENESS about a week ago. I reached the end of my forbearance; this was it--no more mercy! This particular friend has disappointed me so many times I've lost count. Maybe this was the legendary 78th offense that puts me beyond the pale of scriptural responsibility.

Maybe Jesus would let me off the hook; after all I did manage to forgive this person 77 times before, as the gospel says I should. But this time, for some reason, I didn't have it in me. Running on a grace deficit, I decided it was time to nail this guy for his transgressions.

After all, I reasoned, how else would we ever break the cycle of my friend's insensitivity? He asked for my help; I gave it to him. Then he promptly belittled my efforts and refused to accept my suggestions. I have long felt like Charlie Brown approaching the football in this particular relationship. No matter what words of confidence Lucy Van Pelt offers, I know she's still going to yank that football away before I can kick it.

It's easy to suggest that my friend needs therapeutic help for unresolved anger or dependency issues, or that I should look for friendship elsewhere, or that my own continued involvement in a bad dynamic is itself highly suspect. Any of these may be true. But in the matter of Christian forgiveness, how much do I owe him at this late stage of the game? What I'm really asking is, when do I get to rave like a lunatic and take my friend apart piece by piece the way I'm itching to?

This is often the burning issue for us when it comes to forgiveness: We don't want to be cheated of our right to be outraged. When we feel injured in a relationship, the impulse to hit back jerks like a rocket on a launch pad and then hesitates, waiting for us to push the release button. We may want to go off like the Fourth of July in waves of brilliant anger, but our commitment to Christianity makes us pause.

The moment of offense is an inconvenient time to be Christian. The responsibility to forgive those who trespass against us hangs like an albatross around our necks and makes the weight of our own discernment doubly heavy.

WHY CAN'T WE PUSH BACK WHEN WE ARE PUSHED? ISN'T God being rather idealistic to expect otherwise from us? Human history is one long parade of quid pro quo: You hit me and I hit you. Revenge is what makes the world go 'round, or so it seems. Wars, feuds, politics, sports, and more than a few marriages operate this way. We've seen the crime-and-punishment model on display in parenting methods, in the classroom, and in courtrooms.

Heck, the Bible says even God smites sinners for their offenses on occasion. If God is our ultimate role model, why can't we follow suit?

One reason (and a very big one) is that God is the supreme and omniscient being; the rest of us are considerably less so. We must concede that God probably knows when it's time to smite and who needs smiting better than we do. This is why it is impossible to justify acts of human violence--war, capital punishment, domestic abuse, racism, sexism, environmental devastation--in the softer light of divine retribution or "God's will."

Even if God did make some of us stronger or more powerful, that gives none of us the right to exploit those advantages. In fact, many stories in scripture suggest the opposite: The stronger, wiser, and more privileged we are, the more we are required to place our advantage at the service of those less powerful.

And there's one more cosmically huge reason why we can't use God or religion as the cover for our aggression in terms of "holy war," "God's law," or "divine right": God has viewed the relentless pattern of human sinfulness throughout history and resolved, in the face of it all, to save us. Rather than blasting our planet out of the solar system and starting again on kinder, gentler shores, God has decided that forgiving sin is better than making us pay for it.

If anyone has a divine right to be mad about anything, God certainly does. If there is such a thing as a holy war, God could justly wage one against the human race for making such a botched mess of love, creation, and history. If God wanted to judge and condemn us according to preordained values, the laws of Deuteronomy and the standards of the Beatitudes are already a matter of record. If crime and punishment were the model God wanted us to employ in our relationships with each other, "forgive us our trespasses" would be followed with "never mind, I suppose it's too late for that."

AS AN ANSWER TO THE OFFENSE OF HUMAN SINFULNESS, instead of revenge--a pure, holy, righteous revenge such as the world has never seen--God chooses the way of forgiveness, even though that way led right to the cross and death of Jesus, the innocent one.

For anyone still convinced that God does or should permit the spirit of vengeance under special circumstances, what are you going to do with the cross? If ever there were a circumstance more special--the guiltless Son of Man charged with blasphemy and crucified for it--it would be hard to come up with. Yet God did not take out Jerusalem with fire and brimstone as a response to the Crucifixion or even perform surgical strikes against the few well-chosen political leaders who orchestrated this atrocity.

God's astonishing and incongruous response to the Crucifixion was the Resurrection. Humanity chose the way of violence and death. God replied with everlasting life. What kind of answer is that?

We kill. God raises up. We reject. God embraces. We oppress. God exalts. We sin. God saves.

As crazy as it sounds, this is the plan. And if God does wage a holy war, it's not against us but against the evil that stalks us. All God asks of us in response to this unfathomable and mysterious exchange of grace for sin is to forgive our debtors in the same way, to take the wrongs committed against us and to make them right by consecrating them with our forgiveness.

JESUS TELLS A STORY ABOUT HOW THIS IS SUPPOSED TO WORK. A king forgives his servant an immense debt. All the servant has to do is forgive the meager debts of his fellow servants. But this, we know, is not as simple as it sounds. Because the king has a larger heart than his burdened servant does, he can forgive the servant out of a largesse of generosity.

Finding room for a little forgiveness in a little heart is tougher business. So many factors conspire to squeeze out our good intentions. And the longer we've stuffed our hearts with the memorized list of our offenders, the harder it is to find forgiveness in there at all. So what does the servant do when he comes upon one who owes him a pittance? He tries to choke it out of him.

But aren't we doing the same when we imagine that raging at those who have wronged us will make them come up with the goods to make things right? I remember being punished as a child and becoming genuinely confused: I've been bad, and this is supposed to make me good? All it does is make me furious and want to be bad all over again.

Jesus knows that forgiveness doesn't come easy to a finite human heart. God is love, so we can presume compassion is second nature to the Sacred Heart. But if God has more heart than we do, God also has an abominable lot more forgiving to do.

God chooses to offer the hope of forgiveness to all the mass murderers, all the rapists and child molesters, all the terrorists and evil dictators and slave traders of history. God makes divine forgiveness available to cold-souled business folk who profit from the poverty of others and to those whose greed leads them to destroy the land, water, and air that belongs to everybody. God has extended forgiveness to politicians who lie and steal and cheat on their spouses, and to drug pushers who sell their wares to children in schoolyards.

God forgives even the person in your life who has offended you most deeply of all. This is God's choice, and it is the choice we are asked to make whenever we pray: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Like Peter, we'd like the Lord to place a reasonable cap on that expectation. With absolute seriousness, Peter asks, "How many times should I forgive someone who offends me? Seven times?" You can tell Peter feels mighty generous about that number. It's as if he expects Jesus to say, "How big of you!" or even "Don't be a patsy, fella. Three strikes and you're out."

What Peter most certainly did not expect was that Jesus was going to up the ante to 77. How could you even keep track of so many offenses to know when your responsibility to forgive is over?

THIS WAS THE POINT, OF COURSE. THERE IS NO MAGICAL 78th offense that gets you off the hook and entitles you to be aggrieved. For Christians, forgiveness is not a hook we're dangling from; it's the ocean we're swimming in. So, yes, I've got to forgive my infuriating friend who asks for my help but can't, for whatever reason known only to God, really accept it. I forgive him this small thing because I've been forgiven so much more. And all this forgiveness I'm floating around in does indeed make me want to stop being bad and learn to do good all over again.

How often should I forgive? Matthew 18:21-35

By Alice Camille, author of Seven Last Words, a meditation on the cross (ACTA Publications), and co-writer of the homily service Prepare the Word (TrueQuest Communications).
COPYRIGHT 2005 Claretian Publications
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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