Then Peter came and said to him, “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. (Matthew 18:21-22)
At a time like this—the week we recall the attacks of September 11, 2001—it is instructive to set the script of American civil piety next to the scriptures assigned for the twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time. This week we’ve been admonished by politicians and others to “remember and never forget” that terrible day seven years ago. This Sunday Jesus will tell us (again) that forgiveness is the required response to those who sin against us.
It is true that Matthew’s concern in chapter 18 is the restoration of relationships within the ekklesia, but we know that Jesus’ command to love, forgive and to reconcile with our neighbor presumes that our neighbor may sometimes turn out to be an enemy.
But the secular liturgies that have commemorated the events of September 11, 2001 from the beginning until now make no room for forgiveness. Indeed, one of the unquestioned assumptions of such rites has been the specialness of our dying as Americans— the disproportionate value we have placed on American lives lost that September day, compared to the men, women, and children who die every day, every second of every day, around the world, often in circumstances at least as horrific as the terrorist attacks of 9/11. (Nor do we often acknowledge that hundreds of citizens of other countries also died that morning seven years ago).
Every life lost is precious in the sight of God. Yet the woundedness that was felt by many in the early days after 9/11 was soon transformed into a defensiveness that continues to suggest, often without much subtlety, that because we are Americans our suffering is somehow greater than the suffering of others in other times and places.
Which makes it hard to forgive. Hard even to contemplate the possibility of forgiveness. But the church, says Matthew, ought to be the place where we show the world what forgiveness looks like, even if we have to extend it to each other over and over again, which we surely will.
“We do not live to ourselves,” says the apostle Paul in the appointed text from Romans, “and we do not die to ourselves.” Our lives and our deaths are linked to the lives and deaths of others—to the Lord, says Paul, and to one another: to people we love and to those we don’t. Judgment is God’s business, not ours. The work of forgiveness and reconciliation is task enough for the day—this day and every day.