Seventy Seven Times


Seventy Seven Times

Matthew 18:21-35


20 years ago. In 1994 a plane was shot down in Africa.

Aboard that plane was a man named Juvenal Habyarimana. President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda, who just so happened to be a Hutu. The Hutu people were one of the two largest ethnic groups in the area. The other being the Tutsi people.

This event, clearly an assassination, unleashed a tsunami or riots, mayhem, and slaughter between these two groups.

In just over three months – 100 days. Somewhere between 800,000 and 1 million Tutsi and even moderate Hutus would be killed. Some by gunfire… but most would be beaten or cut down by machete. 1 million people. Keep in mind that this number does not include the injured or maimed. Or the number of Hutu people that were killed.

Men, women. No Tutsi was spared, even children, because it was thought, “that even the smallest of snakes will grow up to bite you.”

Many Tutsi people were able to escape over the border to the Democratic Republic of the Congo – but not nearly enough.

Even as our stomachs turn at the thought of such unimaginable violence… the curious thing about it is that when the tsunami passed -100 days. There were no after shocks. No ripples. No small isolated cases of resurgence. When it was done, it was done.

The blood dried in the streets where it fell.

That was it.

It was as if the blindfold of rage, and malice, and evil had been removed from the eyes of anyone carrying a machete or another instrument of war. Just washed away.

So that leads me to wonder- what was it like – day 101? What was it like to wake up and look around? What was it like to count the people that you had lost? What was it like to count the lives that were lost at your hand? What was day 101 like?

Once the Rwandan government regained their footing. They found that they had an impossible problem in front of them. Clearly those that had carried out this genocide would need to be brought to justice! Clearly!

But what do you do when that means everyone? At least 500,000 people were accused of participating in this genocide

How do you bring a massive frenzied mob to justice? How do you hold child murderers accountable?

Horrific acts of violence were carried out – neighbor to neighbor. People that had previously been friends, family even.

Where do you start?

With this impossible problem ahead of them, the county’s leaders chose to take a big step of faith.

And together they inherited a national policy of forgiveness! In order to starve any remaining hate.

Of course they rounded up the worst of the worst. Those that had poured fuel on the flames… And all of them still sit in prison today…

But with the other hundreds of thousands guilty citizens – for them it was forgiveness.

Now, because Americans are notoriously skeptical…you may be thinking: “It is one thing for the government to state that this is the way that things are going to be… and another thing entirely to be on the ground – to be one of the millions of angry/ hurting people in the wake of this tragedy that are counting their astronomical losses.”

But, it would seem that day 101 did not hold a cry for vengeance… at all. But rather it held a simple cry of exhaustion. The country was tired of the war, tired of the hate… and was begging for mercy. For grace. For a way to more forward away from the fear and the wounds they afflicted upon each other.

To address this fear, the Rwandan government, with the help of the UN, introduced the Gacaca process. Which is a system of village-based courts. Each village elected a “righteous person” to stand as their volunteer judge – someone that everyone trusted to be wise and fair. And then the accused would be brought before this righteous person/ this judge. Without an attorney… just themselves. And there the accused would come face-to-face with the family and loved ones of their victim. Most of the accused seized this opportunity to come and confess their actions/ their sins and ask for forgiveness from the family. And together (the righteous judge, the accused, and the victims) they would determine the sentence.[1]

Most people were sentenced to rebuilding their village by the sweat of their brow. They would work off their sins (so to speak). Building orphanages for the thousands of children now without parents. They would rebuild the houses that had been burned to the ground. They would rebuild the schools, the shops, the churches. They would actively work towards Rwanda’s future/ for reconciliation.

Today, forgiveness flows freely in Rwanda. A big time forgiveness.

The unspeakable crimes that were committed during the 100 days of terror cannot be erased or forgotten. But the Rwanda people have chosen to not “forgive and forget” but to forgive and to remember. To choose reconciliation (every day… again and again) and to choose to honor those that they have lost by making sure it never happens again. Which is why we must tell the story of the Rwandan people, even know- even here, 20-years later. To make sure that hate never again is given so much power.

In the past 20 years the Rwandan government has been working hard to create a single Rwandan identity.   There is no longer Hutu and Tutsi. To speak of such divisions is offensive. There is only the Rwandan people. One. United. Together.

Today, after years of rebuilding, Rwanda is an African success story. It has one of the fastest economic growth rates in Africa. One of the lowest crime rates. And the lowest rate of HIV- AIDS on the continent.

A third of the Rwanda’s cabinet members are female ministers and almost half of the parliamentarians are women- the highest anywhere in the world. They are one of the leading global examples of a growing, healthy and progressive country. That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

It is hard to imagine the depth and possibilities that live inside forgiveness.

Yet a life of forgiveness – is exactly what the Gospel of Matthew talks about today. In our Scripture reading, we find the disciple Peter sitting alongside Jesus looking for a bit of clarification.

“How often should I forgive?” Peter asks, “Seven times? How many times must I be slighted before I say enough? How long, O Lord, before our reservoir of grace has been exhausted? Surely seven is a lot, generous even.” [2]

To this Jesus provides (as he often does) a radical kind of suggestion: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”

For many of us there is a mental ledger living in our brain that keeps track of who has wronged us and how, but according to Jesus, there is no need for it. To Christ forgiveness is a deep, unending reservoir of grace that will never ever run dry.[3]

Forgiveness is not something that is quantifiable. But rather forgiveness is, as Rev. Michael Marsh says, “a quality; a way of being, a way of living, a way of loving, a way of relating, a way of thinking and seeing. It is nothing less than the way of Christ. “ And if we are to be followers of Christ than we must embody that forgiveness, that way of being and relating and loving.

C.S. Lewis once said that, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until there is something to forgive.”[4]

And this is where our brave brothers and sisters in Rwanda and the Gospel collide.

In our Scripture passage, Jesus first tells Peter that forgiveness is abundant/ endless, and needs to flow from us freely… but then he tells him a story teaching him that as hard as it is to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness… it is perhaps even harder to grant forgiveness to others.

Because gifting someone with forgiveness involves letting go. Letting go of the anger. Letting go of the hurt, the debt, the right to be bitter. As much as forgiveness sets us free/ sets things right, it is an incredibly difficult thing to receive and to share, and most of all to choose it again and again.

Last week, if you can remember, we talked about forgiving small offenses like gossip and thoughtlessness. But what do we do when the wounds are big and deep?

Think of our brothers and sisters in Rwanda 20 years ago and even today. Think of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East that suffer now… as we sit here in our worship space…   Think of your own story.

Each and everyone of us has known broken promises, hurt feelings, betrayals, physical and emotional wounds, fear and uncertainly. Everyone of us here has a story to tell

So what did you do when the wounds were too big and deep?

Did you seek your revenge? Run away? Let the wounds paralyze you?

How did that work out for you?

All of that (revenge, feeing, freezing) leaves us stuck in the past, far from the life God desires for us.

Forgiveness is the only way to move forward.

But know this: forgiveness does not mean forgetting or condoning – for the only way that cycles of evil and wrong are broken is through love and forgiveness. The ways of Christ.

“How often should I forgive?” Peter asks, “Seven times? How many times must I choose forgiveness?”

And to answer this I’m going to borrow the words of Rev. Michael Marsh again, because he said it so beautifully: “Tell me this. How many times have you been hurt and suffered by the actions or words of another? How many times has anger or fear controlled you? How many times has the thought of revenge filled you? How many times have you shuddered at the sight, the name, or the memory of another? How many times have you replayed in your head the argument with another? … That’s how many times you choose. With each choosing we move a step closer to forgiveness. Then one day, God willing, we will meet, victims and perpetrators, as happy thieves in the Paradise of God, the Father of us all.

“How often should I forgive?” Peter asks, “Seven times?”

“No.” Jesus answered, “Every time.”

Let us pray,

Lord, help us to be a people of forgiveness. Help us to be brave. Help us to choose over and over again to starve out hate with forgiveness. And Lord help us to always remember – for in remembering we assure that these thing that leave scars on us never happen again. Not to us, and not to anyone else. May we always remember.

In Christ’s name. Amen.

[1] Report for the United Nations: U.N In Action: Grass Roots Justice in Rwanda. Week of July 24th, 2006.

[2] Barreto Eric: Commentary on Matthew 18: 21-35. Working Preacher.

[3] Barreto, Eric

[4] Mere Christianity, p.115.


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