Because the topic of forgiveness is so sensitive, and has so often been used to bludgeon, silence or guilt those who have suffered an injustice, I want to start off with a few caveats. I don’t think anyone has the right to demand that another person should forgive, or forgive on a certain time line. In my mind, God can give us anger at an injustice as a powerful force to drive personal and societal change. Forgiveness isn’t a more “worthy” or morally correct feeling than anger. Each emotion has its appropriate time and place. Please accept the following thoughts not as a general promotion of forgiveness, but theological reflections on forgiveness in its proper time and place.

My father-in-law Ray was the victim of medical malpractice when he was in his 60s, and the family believes his quality of life could have been better in his remaining years if things had been done right early on. Ray could probably have successfully sued his doctor – and since Ray is a lawyer, he could probably have done it without much cost to himself. But Ray chose not to, saying that he just didn’t want to spend his remaining years in the courtroom. He’d rather enjoy whatever time he had left with his family.

Ray’s decision came to mind after I heard the Norwegian Labour Youth Party’s response to the terrorist who killed 77 people, most of them teenagers, on July 22 this year. Eskil Pedersen, the leader of the Youth party, later said at the party’s official memorial gathering, “We have been changed and marked by what has happened. We will always be known as the July 22 generation. And that gives us power. Because we have the power to decide what the future will be.”

Neither one of these vignettes is about forgiveness per se, but my curiosity was awakened. What, exactly, does the famous Matthew 18 say about forgiveness? Matthew 18 contains the scene where Peter asks whether 7 is the correct number of times to forgive, and Jesus responds, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. Now, Jesus may simply have been saying, “Peter, you dolt, this isn’t something you can quantify. This is about soul and internal transformation, not a set of rules.” However, if he was saying something more generalisable, what could that be?

I started, as usual, by looking at the context. What is going on in the story before and after this particular scene?

The story with Peter is in a collection of parables and incidents that take place just before Jesus goes to Jerusalem and is killed. In terms of relative importance, we are close to the core of what Jesus’ wanted his disciples to know, the heart of what he wanted to accomplish in his life. Immediately before Peter’s question is the parable of the lost sheep, in which Jesus explains that each sheep (person) is too beloved and precious for God to allow him or her to be lost. Before that, the disciples bicker about who is greatest, and Jesus tells them that the greatest is s/he who is most like a child. Immediately after Peter’s question comes the parable of the unmerciful servant, who is forgiven a huge debt he owes his master, but follows up by refusing to forgive a smaller debt that is owed him, and harshly punishes the debtor. The master’s response is to withdraw the forgiveness he had previously granted. Jesus moves on to address divorce, essentially saying that a man can’t just divorce his wife because he feels like it. Then Jesus returns to the topic of children, saying that heaven belongs to children and those who are like children.

In looking at all these stories together, it looks to me like Jesus is addressing generosity, broadly speaking. What they all have in common is that the initiator of the parable is trying to impose some sort of judgment on others, dividing people into categories of greater/lesser or worthy/unworthy.  It is about turning away children, someone who owes money, or a wife one is no longer infatuated with. In each situation, it is the person with relative power in the relationship who rejects the one who has less worldly power. Jesus teaches the person who would judge or dismiss someone who comes to them that they should respond generously and with welcome.

What – the question of forgiveness belongs in the larger picture of generosity and welcome?!

I have always thought of forgiveness in the framework of justice, as an ultimate goal in a journey that involves the victim feeling healed, the perpetrator repenting, making amends, and choosing a better path. Maybe that’s why I could never articulate a theology of forgiveness?! As long as I looked at forgiveness in the context of justice, it seemed to tie the victim to the perpetrator in a relationship of sorts, and the humanly impossible feat of feeling peace about what had happened. It never felt right.

But what if forgiveness instead is about acts of generosity and welcome? Perhaps that is why my father-in-law Ray and the Norwegian Labor Youth’s actions made me want to read Matthew 18. Now, I can’t say anything about how any of them feel – that is not for me to say. They may feel badly done by, angry, and still hungering for an apology,  restoration, or wanting never to have anything to do with the perpetrator ever again. All of those would be very natural feelings. Perhaps they feel peace about it? I don’t know and I don’t think I’m entitled to know, and it belongs in their inner world and their relationship with God.

I do think I am permitted to reflect on other people’s acts. My father-in-law decided not to invest any more of his energy in the doctor and did not sue him. Instead he devoted himself to his wife and family and causes he believed in, creating a better life for all. The Labor Youth likewise decided to more or less ignore the killer. They have decided to put their energy into shaping the future. Their generosity and welcome of Muslims were the policies that got them into the crosshairs of the killer. After the killings, the surviving youth redicated themselves to that vision. Furthermore, they discerned that building social trust – creating a society that allows people’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs to be met – is the best defense against violence. In other words, they are being welcoming and generous to all, in the hopes it might prevent future killings.  

That looks like forgiveness to me, the kind we read about in Matthew 18. Then we can leave feelings of anger, peace, despair or contentment where they belong, in the private conversations in the heart between the individual and God. 

Query for prayerful reflection: What stirs in you when you think of forgiveness within the framework of generosity and welcome? What do you think of the idea of distinguishing between feelings and acts when considering forgiveness?