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It will be hard for victims to hear, but forgiveness should be without limit

By Canon Walter Lewis

In The Lord's Prayer - the central prayer of the Christian faith - Jesus taught his followers to pray to the Father, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us". Here, Jesus bids us to think about the important matter of forgiveness.

Firstly, we are urged to acknowledge our own sins, to repent of those sins and to receive the forgiveness of a loving and merciful God.

Secondly, forgiven by God, we pray that we may then forgive others who sin against us.

Here, Jesus stresses that forgiveness is a two-sided issue. God forgives our sins, but he then expects us to go and forgive the wrongs others have done against us.

With the history of the Troubles here, such forgiveness can be extremely difficult to practice, particularly by those who are the innocent victims of violence, but Jesus stressed that forgiveness is fundamental to Christian discipleship.

The chief Apostle, Simon Peter, needed authoritative information on the subject and asked Jesus, "How often should you forgive, seven times?"

In the Jewish Rabbinic tradition, of which Peter would have been aware, a person must forgive another three times. In this regard, Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said: "If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him. The fourth time, they do not forgive."

It was deduced from this that God's forgiveness extended to three offences, and that he visits the sinner with punishment at the fourth. It was not to be thought that people could be more gracious than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.

In his conversation with Jesus, Peter took the Rabbinic 'three times', multiplied it by two, and for good measure added one. He suggested to Jesus that it would be enough if he forgave seven times. However, Jesus responded to Peter with an answer, presumably completely unexpected: "Seventy times seven." In other words, "Forgiveness must be without limit, boundary or time". Jesus was saying, forgiveness is uncalculating and indiscriminate. It should be a constant, intrinsic part of daily life, as natural as sleeping and waking.

Jesus's point to Peter then, and to you and me today, is this: "You have been forgiven all your sins by a kind, merciful and loving God. You are now mandated to reflect that same mercy, kindness and love in your forgiveness of others."

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