Just the other day I was flipping through TV channels and came across a show about a guy who picks up road kill for a living. I thought, “Why in the world would anyone want to watch this?” And then, of course, I couldn’t turn it off! That show was called “Dirty Jobs,” and Mike Rowe was the man who became famous for trying some of the dirtiest jobs on the planet. He has waded through sewers, castrated horses, farmed worm poop, and sorted through medical waste, just to name a few. He goes out and learns about the jobs that none of us would ever want to do, and gets coached by the people who do these jobs every day for a living. It’s not just for entertainment, because Mike goes deeper in order to pay respect to the men and women who roll up their sleeves and do these challenging jobs every day.
That show sends a powerful message that there is dignity in hard work and deep satisfaction in tackling and finishing a tough job. Sometimes we just need to roll up our sleeves and be willing to get dirty – to do the tough job that is before us. And that is the message we need to hear in today’s readings about forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a tough job. Sometimes it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. Luckily for us, Jesus rolls up his sleeves and shows us how. It all begins with a question from Peter: “Lord, if my brother or sister sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Peter is probably expecting Jesus to give the answer that was typical for Jewish teaching at that time which taught that you should forgive someone one, two, or three times. Forgiving seven times goes far beyond the “rule of three.” (Forgiving seven times also draws on the Jewish symbolism of seven, signifying completeness.) So Jesus must have shocked Peter and the disciples by increasing to an almost impossible seventy-seven times, or even seventy times seven (or 490 times)!
What Jesus is trying to tell us is that we must be willing to forgive without bounds, just as we have been forgiven and set free by the grace of God.
Pope Francis said: “If we want to move forward in faith, first of all we must receive the forgiveness of God. We must meet the Father, who is ready to forgive everything and always.” God’s forgiveness knows no end. It doesn’t matter how big the debt, the payment from God is always forgiveness.
And just as God forgives us, we must also forgive others. But here’s something we need to remember: forgiveness is not an event, it’s a process. We want it to be over and done within a single moment; but in reality, it takes a serious emotional and spiritual commitment – and that’s not easy for us to do.
When an offense happens, we just cannot say that it’s ok or what they did doesn’t matter. (Because it DOES matter!) But what we need to do is to count the cost, or determine how much they owe us – and then make the decision to say, “I’m not going to make you pay me back.”
Mercy is not, “Oh, it’s not a big deal.” Mercy is not, “Don’t worry about it, I’m a doormat.” Mercy is not, “Oh, I feel so great about you and I love you and I’m going to trust you forever.” That’s not what mercy is. Mercy is knowing exactly what you owe me and then saying, “I release you from your debt.”
Just as forgiveness can be extremely powerful, so can unforgiveness. Someone once told me that unforgiveness is like carrying a dead person around with you on your back everywhere you go. Eventually what would happen is your skin would begin rotting away from carrying around that carcass. But, that’s what can happen to us when we choose to carry unforgiveness in our hearts toward someone else. Emotionally, bitterness and resentment take root and begin eating away at us on the inside. When we are unwilling to forgive, we’re burdened by an unshakable misery that robs us of the joy and peace we so desperately seek. Forgiveness sets us free from the burden we have been carrying!!! It frees both the forgiven and the forgiver. To forgive is to cast off the sin and bitterness of wrongdoing. Don’t get me wrong, you will still remember what happened, but you will no longer be bound by it.
Pope Francis tells us, “Forgiveness heals the heart and revives love. We must never tire of asking God’s forgiveness, because only when we are forgiven – when we feel forgiven – we learn to forgive.”
The Greek word for forgiveness literally means to send off, hurl, release, or let go. It’s an active process – an almost violent act of dismissal, and Jesus challenges us to do it endlessly. God is willing to do the most disgusting of dirty jobs, to remove our sins and shame through the gift of forgiveness. All God asks is that we do the same for others – be it one, two, three, seven…seventy seven times…or infinity.
Forgiveness is a tough job. Sometimes it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it – and that someone is us. So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work!