Peter’s nemesis / Our nemesis
There is a curious little Q and A session at the start of today’s gospel.
Peter goes to Jesus and asks
‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Peter thinks that he is being very generous and magnanimous. Seven is the perfect number after all but he learns that forgiveness must come from the heart, not a calculator.
The King James version reads if my brother sins against me, but our more modern translations have
another member of the church.
And I think this change in language is right. The capacity of us to be annoyed by another is not limited to gender. If we are brutally honest we must fess up and say that people of both genders sometimes annoy us.
But there is something else going on here and the change in language reflects a deeper truth. Peter did not have in mind issues that affected the integrity of the whole community, but interpersonal differences and hurts. There is a nemesis, an individual, lurking around in the background here. Yet, even unresolved hurts between individuals can affect the openness and warmth of any community. So that when one person in the community, religious or town community, annoys or sins against the other, it is not just the two people that are affected. When sin occurs, when there is disgruntlement and argy-bargy, then the whole fabric of the community can fray at the edges, or worse, become unravelled and it can mean a lot of hard stitching up and patience to knit things together again.
We learn that forgiveness is not just a one-way action from one individual towards another individual. There are more people involved here than we might think.
Forgiveness is also reciprocal. It flows both ways from one individual to another and back again. And more than that, forgiveness is reliant. Ie. Our forgiveness from God is reliant on the speed and depth of the forgiveness we offer to others. That's what the parable of the King is all about. And there is a rather chilling challenge right at the end of the gospel which says
Forgive your brother or sister from… your … heart. It is terrifyingly easy to utter the words of forgiveness from our lips, it is a different thing altogether to mean it from our heart and often I suspect the audible words come first and the forgiveness from the heart comes much later with time and a patient, conscious effort.
It is why the Lord’s prayer is something we need to say frequently and it is why the fifth petition is something we need to ponder and reflect on consistently.
And there is a solemn warning here to all of us and especially clergy that we ought to be so very careful when we kick things upstairs and seek clarification from above, because the answer we are given may not be the one we wanted or expected or hoped for and then of course you have nowhere to go.
I wonder if Peter regretted asking Jesus about his nemesis.
I am intrigued as to who Peter’s friendly irritant was. A close friend, a fellow worshipper, a relative and what exactly were they doing to annoy Peter? And if you are very brave you might like to imagine yourself as Peter going to our Lord and asking the same question about someone you know so painfully well.
Of course, what Jesus is suggesting is not a larger ledger upon which we can keep track of offences. He’s not requiring an additional number of gracious acts. Instead, he is suggesting there is no need for a ledger at all. That we should cheerfully chuck the ledger out altogether.
The things of the kingdom of heaven are not quantifiable. They are not measurable. Things like love, forgiveness, compassion, joy, and peace do not fit into a mathematical formula and nor do they have a use-by date. There must never be a time when forgiveness runs dry and is all gone.
Perhaps our nemesis is not just a person. Perhaps the thing that also continues to annoy us, frustrate us and irritate us, is that whinging, nagging voice that says that we are not quite there yet. That we haven’t quite got this forgiveness business right and smooth and perfect.
And if we are honest we can say that there are times when we are a nemesis to another person. That we too are the irritants to others and that we can aggravate and bother other people. And perhaps God in his patient loving, is a nemesis to us. That he will continue to love and cajole and harangue and persist and call us back frequently and with verve, and while we might be disappointed in ourselves, isn’t marvellous that He never gives up on us.