September 15, 2002
Forgive Seventy Seven
After one is in the Jesuits for fifteen years or so, they send you far away
for a sabbatical year to a peaceful place to pray. So five years ago, they
sent me to Belfast. As you know, Northern Ireland is not a peaceful place at
all, after thirty years of civil war between Nationalists and Unionists,
Catholics and Protestants, over Great Britain's control of the six counties,
and the lack of basic civil rights for Catholics. Both sides have terrible
paramilitary armies that have bombed and killed people.
One day, fifteen years ago, the IRA blew up the center of the town of
Enniskillen, during their Memorial Day parade. Eleven people were killed and
dozens were injured.
One of those killed was a twenty year old nursing student named Marie
Wilson, who was standing on the street with her father, Gordon, watching as
the parade passed by. The bomb blew up the building behind them. It fell on
them, killing Marie and injuring Gordon. When that happened, in November
1987, the whole world was shocked and outraged.
Later that day, when Gordon Wilson was released from the hospital, the TV
cameras surrounded him and asked him for a statement. "I have no desire for
revenge or retaliation," he said. "Killing the people who killed my daughter
will not bring her back. So I forgive the bombers and I leave everything to
God and I believe someday, I will see my daughter again."
The whole country was shocked by Gordon's forgiveness. No one had quite ever
forgiven the other side so publicly before. For the first time in a long
time, people began to talk about forgiving one another, to forgive the
bombers, and to let go of resentment, and this talk of forgiveness and
reconciliation helped lead up to the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.
Gordon traveled around the world promoting reconciliation until his death
from cancer a few years ago.
So when I was living in Northern Ireland, I went to the town of Enniskillen
to meet Gordon Wilson's wife, Joan, who is still alive, and living in their
home. She invited me in for a cup of tea that afternoon, and after we were
chatting, I asked her, "Joan, how did he do it? How did you and Gordon
forgive the people who killed your daughter?"
This is what she said to me. "Gordon and I had been married for thirty
years, and every night before we went to bed, we knelt down together and
prayed the Lord's prayer. Every night for thirty years! When Gordon was in
the hospital that afternoon, he said to me, 'We have to forgive. Otherwise,
we can never pray the Lord's prayer again.' We wanted to be able to say to
God, 'Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against
us.' So we forgave the murderers, and we were able to continue praying the
Today, Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how often do I have to forgive my brother?
Seven times? Remember, Peter has a brother who is also one of the
disciples-Andrew. Peter was probably annoyed by his brother Andrew. And if
you think about it, Peter is really proposing a lot. Imagine forgiving
someone seven times a day. That means, you say, "I forgive you" in the
morning, late in the morning, at noon, in the middle of the afternoon, at
dinner time, in the evening, and just before retiring. That's a lot of
But Jesus says we are to forgive not seven times, but seventy seven times!
In some versions, he says, Seventy times Seven times, which is about 490
times! We are to go around all day long, for the rest of our lives, saying,
"I forgive you. I forgive you. I forgive you." Then Jesus goes on to give
this parable, calling us to imitate the mercy and forgiveness of God, with
the punch line that we are to forgive one another from our hearts, no matter
Forgiveness is at the center of Jesus' teachings. And he practiced it
himself, as he was dying on the cross, when he prayed and forgave the people
who had just brutally tortured him and were killing him, saying, "Father,
forgive them; they know not what they do."
Now you may be thinking, "That's just beautiful. How nice. Sure, I believe
in forgiveness. Who doesn't?"
But deep, deep down, we all have someone we do not want to forgive. We all
have someone we resent, someone who hurt us, someone we're mad at, someone
we hate, maybe our brother or sister, or parents, or classmate or neighbor
Today, Jesus says, "I want you to forgive that person and let go of your
resentment, your anger, your pain, your hurt, and grant general absolution
and clemency to everyone who ever hurt you."
The Gospel invites us to say to Jesus, "Ok, Lord, today I forgive that
person. In fact, I forgive everyone. I even forgive the hijackers of
As we forgive everyone who ever hurt us and let go of our resentment, we can
say the Lord's prayer like Gordon and Joan Wilson, and when we get to the
line, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against
us," we know God will forgive us too.
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