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. Mt 18:21-22


Forgive seventy times seven!  Why this seemingly random number? Because in Genesis one of the sons of Cain, Lamech, is said to have sought retribution seventy times seven (Gen 4:24)—a swelling tide of revenge: but now in a reversal, we shall release our enemies by just so much. [1]  Forgiveness means release, amnesty, unbinding.  Whenever we injure another, we become indebted to them: something of our spirit becomes bound up with theirs.  We become bound up with their pain.

But Jesus tells us to unbind and to release them, not seeking retribution.   If we seek retribution, there can be a sudden escalation, as we know, which could issue even in war.   At once we are a victim, and also a persecutor: we shuttle between the two positions.  But we are called to break the cycle of violence, removing ourselves even from the situation altogether if necessary.

We forgive and seek forgiveness: well and good.  But what puzzles many is why the Church should interpose itself by offering forgiveness of sins in the name of God?  Surely it is up to each of us to seek forgiveness for our own sins?  Once a friend challenged me on just this point, saying that the Church was wrong to offer forgiveness for other people’s sins: the Church has no right being involved.  Each of us has a responsibility to seek forgiveness, or to forgive, as it may be.  We must take responsibility!

So I set to thinking.


We know that sin alienates us from God.  Whenever we sin against another, or even conceivably against ourselves, we sin also against God.  And this is important for us to understand.   There are two who must release us: the other human being we have harmed, and God.  We bind ourselves to another in time, but we also bind ourselves to God in eternity.

In fact this is just the division the Church came to when it reflected on its own practice (Summa Theologiae, III, 86, 4)  The priest forgives sin in its eternal dimension.  But let us understand that the priest does not release us from our indebtedness to the human being we have harmed.  We are still bound to them temporally, we might say: we must still make satisfaction to that person.  That is why, I think, it is a misrepresentation of the sacrament of confession to suppose that it is a way of avoiding our obligations to other people.

In fact, however, the Church, and the priest, only releases one from sins in their eternal dimension.  What does this really mean? It means that, however indebted we might be to other people, we are not alienated from life and love.  God does not despise him who comes with a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51), and there is for us a restoration of virtue: faith, hope and love are restored. (Summa Theologiae III, Q. 89) Moreover, since we are in communion with God, we are in communion with those we have harmed: God is still involved in the situation.  It remains open and dynamic; a new element can enter in.  Resolution is still possible.  Therefore we have grounds for hope and love.   She who has been forgiven much loves much: that is the great Lukan principle at work when the priest gives absolution.

If we go to a priest for a private confession the pain of concealment can end for us.  We have a chance to work out how we might practically amend our life, changing any bad habits and seeking resolution with any we have wronged.   We go out in the strength of God, even into the vulnerable and difficult work of repairing relationships.

Of course, we know that some problems cannot be resolved in this life; and if there are some especially delicate and dangerous situations it might be best to remove ourselves from them completely.  But if we have God’s forgiveness, we have the assurance that even these will ultimately be resolved and unknotted—after this life if needs be.  God is still in the situation, working hiddenly.  In the meantime, life and love can continue for us. If we have tried to reconcile and have failed, we are entitled to a certain detachment. Our conscience is clear. We should only be worried if we have made no attempt at all or, worse, have continued the cycle of harm.

That is not the way of life.



At the reformation, the Anglican Church decided that works of penance were unnecessary: no longer would the Church require prayer, fasting or almsgiving in order to receive God’s forgiveness.  These could only ever be voluntary. In this way the judicial aspect of penance (so-called) gave way to a therapeutic approach.  Now the free forgiveness of God would be offered to all who came with a sincere heart.  Again, the policy was she who is forgiven much loves much.  What was important was to be reinstated in love, to be encouraged in love; and to discern practical ways of resolving a situation.

We did away with the rite of confession, too.  (Only with the more recent prayer books has a rite of confession reappeared).  If your conscience was troubled, you would seek out pastoral conversation with a minister; and, before every holy communion, would be encouraged to search your heart to see whether you be in love and charity with your neighbour.  Have I harmed any?  Are there any who I have not forgiven? (See in general the Homily on Repentance and True Reconciliation with God (Bk 2, no. 20))

I want to encourage you all to take up the opportunity of pastoral conversation with a priest as a spiritual practice: an opportunity to assess the health of your relationships and to reflect, with another in the presence of God, whether you be in love and charity with your neighbour.  This is a therapeutic practice: and it is an important way of living our membership of the body of Christ.

May we seek to forgive others, as we have been forgiven.


[1] Some translations have seventy times seven while others have seventy plus seven (and others simply seventy-seven). Still, the allusion seems clear enough.