Sunday, September 13, 2023
As a musician, I know the line well, “practice makes perfect!” If you play an instrument or sing in a musical group, you know that you practice striving for some kind of perfection – not just to hit all of the right notes, but to use the right dynamics, tempo, phrasing, and intonation – diction or articulation. And we hardly ever do have a perfect performance, but it’s in the striving that we hopefully find enjoyment, even if it’s not QUITE perfect musically. Some people have perfect pitch, which means that they can hear a note and tell you without looking that it’s an A or a C and what key a piece is in. Athletes also strive for perfection in their practice: there have been 24 perfect games in Major League Baseball, which means not allowing a player to reach a base the entire game by any means! Perhaps some of you remember when gymnast Nadia Comaneci scored a perfect 10 at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Academically, homework is “practice makes perfect” – we do regular work to get a 100% on the test, an A in the class, to score 1600 on the SAT.
In different areas of our lives, we have an idea of what it would mean to be perfect, and we know that it’s hard to get to that level of perfection; maybe impossible for most of us. If you are a perfectionist, this is a real struggle in life; most of us learn to be OK with less than perfect. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” But what does it mean to be perfect in Jesus’ eyes, because we know we are definitely NOT perfect? We are not God; we can’t be like our heavenly Father.
Jesus starts out his teaching on forgiveness today by telling Peter to forgive not just seven but seventy-seven times. This does not literally mean we should keep track and once we’ve forgiven our spouse or our kids seventy-seven times, sorry, no more forgiveness for the 78th time! Jesus is talking again about perfection. Practice makes perfect when it comes to forgiveness! The number seven, as you may know, is considered to be a “perfect” number in religious terms, because it adds 3, the divine number, the Holy Trinity, and 4, for the four directions of the Earth. Seventy-seven or seven times seven people would have understood to be a symbolic number meaning TOTAL perfection. Jesus asks us to strive to forgive without counting or keeping track; to forgive, and forgive and forgive. The more we forgive, the easier it gets. Practice makes perfect.
Here’s the thing. In all of our ideas of what it means to be perfect, my guess is being a more forgiving person does not come to mind. In fact, forgiveness sometimes is looked upon as a form of weakness, especially in terms of forgiving the same person over and over and over again. You’re a pushover, you’re too tolerant, passive, whatever. In the Sermon on the Mount, however, Jesus asks us to be perfect like our heavenly Father right after instructing us to love our enemies. And if we were to envision a “perfect world,” like the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom that Jesus has come to bring about, doesn’t it include the idea of living in harmony with others? A world with peace instead of violence and war, where everyone loves each other with kindness and respect as Jesus does for us. A world where people readily forgive and receive forgiveness.
To demonstrate his point, Jesus goes on to tell a parable about a man who has been forgiven but can’t bring himself to practice the same forgiveness he’s received. One talent was equal to fifteen years of wages for an average worker of Jesus’ time. In other words, in the parable the king forgives 150,000 years’ worth of debt – there is no way the man would have been able to repay that debt in his lifetime, no matter how patient the king was in awaiting repayment. How quickly the man loses gratitude for what he’s received – he immediately seizes a guy who owes him a much less significant sum, about 100 days’ worth of wages, and throws him into a debtors’ prison. He didn’t try to forgive even one time. Forget being perfect in forgiving, he didn’t practice forgiveness at all.
Alexander Pope famously wrote, “to err is human, to forgive, divine.” In our striving to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect, when it comes to forgiveness, how quickly we recognize ourselves in the unforgiving slave. God forgives so much more easily than we are able to forgive. In terms of what we owe to God, our debt could never be paid. If we were to count up how many times we’ve done something “unforgiveable,” words and actions we can never take back or make up for, we would owe something like 150,000 years’ to God. We are pretty far from perfection. And yet, God sends Jesus to die and be raise for us so that we might know the depths of God’s grace, mercy, and undeserved love for us. We have been forgiven – perfectly and completely by God our Father in heaven through Christ. How can we not also then forgive much smaller things in comparison, when others hurt us? In this sense, practicing forgiveness makes perfect. We forgive or at least we try to forgive, because Jesus has first forgiven us. We pray, “forgive us our trespasses, our sins, our debts, as we forgive those who trespass, sin against us” just as Jesus taught us to pray. We practice forgiveness even when we know we can’t come close to God’s perfection. May we rest in the perfect forgiveness of Christ. Amen.