"Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?" Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven?"
Before I even get into Jesus' response to Peter's question, I have to acknowledge the universality of his query. I imagine that everyone has wrestled with, at one time or another, where forgiveness begins and ends. So, what is the answer? Is it 7, 77, 490, or some other number?
Obviously, Jesus puts some emphasis into forging healthy relationships.
In fact, it is for this exact reason that God comes in human form - to reconcile, forgive, and restore the relationship between Creator and creation. This same Jesus instructs us to "turn the other cheek" as a means of avoiding the rending of relationships.
As important as Peter's question, is interpreting Jesus' response.
Seven, Seventy-seven, or Seventy times Seven? A sharp-eyed friend took the time during a recent sermon to consult with the pew bible when I quoted Matthew 18:21-22. In that version, the passage reads "seven times seven" rather than the translation that I was using which rendered the verse as "seventy times seven." The Greek number here is hebdomekontakis hepta which is usually understood as seventy-seven times but the various translators have not always agreed. But before we get down to the counting and the way we are to calculate the mathematics of forgiveness, we may want to find out why Peter is starting us out at seven.
It all began back in Genesis.
Way back at the beginning we have the story of two brothers: Cain and Abel. After Cain kills his brother, God comes to him and curses his trade as a farmer. Cain says to God, "my punishment is too much. I cant take it. You've thrown me off the land and I can never again face you. I'm a homeless wanderer and whoever finds me will kill me." Wow! A landless farmer seems like a pretty radical punishment and of course, Cain is concerned for his welfare post-farming. But God steps in and says this: "Anyone who kills Cain will pay for it . . . seven times over." A bit farther down, one of Cain's descendants named Lamech kills a young man for "wounding" him and proclaims, "If Cain is avenged seven times, for Lamech, it is seventy-seven times!" (Genesis 4:15 and 24)
For Peter, an offer to forgive seven times is pretty extravagant.
As a reversal of the seven-fold pronouncement by God for anyone who took Cain's life or the even more extreme promise of a 490-fold vengeance of Lamech, by all measures Peter's opening bid of seven "get out of jail free" cards is really a whole bunch of forgiveness. And while most us don't consider murdering anyone we aren't ready to forgive, we still set about assassinating the character of others, withhold life-giving and affirming care/concern, and fail to offer up daily prayers for their restoration even if they have done something to warrant our disfavor.
The problem in our reading - and Peter's - is not one of linguistics or mathematics.
The difference between Pete's question and Jesus' response has nothing to do with language or math and instead gets to the heart of forgiveness.
Whoever counts has not forgiven at all.
When our conversation turns to measuring the frequency, depth, sincerity, or any other form of measurement, we have not forgiven at all! In the place of forgiveness is the personal privilege we carve our for ourselves as we wait, biding our time until we can repay like for like, evil for evil, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!
Jesus is calling for us to forget so that we can actually forgive.
You have heard it said, forgive and forget. That order is reversed. In order for us to forgive, we must first forget. You see it in the life of Jesus - sent from God to forgive. In that sending, God had to first forget all of the stuff humanity was doing, how humanity was ignoring, degrading, and usurping the sovereignty of God. God forgot in order for us to be forgiven.
So, the numbers don't matter?
Not really. For those who want to play "how many times?" I can only offer this: if you are surrounded by so many different people that test your ability to forgive each and every one seven times per day before you extract your revenge, you might want to look at where you live and work! Moreover, you really need to look at yourself to see if the problem lies with you and not with those for whom you are keeping score. Said another way, you may want to shop for a life. Seven, seventy-seven, or four hundred and ninety: the kind of forgiveness that Jesus is calling for and exemplifying is beyond all calculation. And as a further example, Jesus follows up with a parable at verses 23-35. If you have time, take a moment to read it and see what you think.
Please feel free to comment. This is the way that we learn from one another, especially when a sarcastic and occasionally heretical preacher writes a blog!