“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Matthew 18:21
Forgiving those who have done you wrong is not easy, especially if they do not show any sign that they are sorry. It’s not easy to say that something is past; that it’s over; that it’s forgotten; that it’s wiped away from your mind.
More often, if someone has done something wrong to us, we store it up in our memory; we go over it again and again. We think about every detail of what happened; we think about the hurt we felt at the time and the hurt we still feel. We build up all these thoughts and feelings inside us and we can become bitter and resentful. I think that the most human reaction is not how we can forgive people, it’s how we can get our own back.
Vengeance can have a very sweet taste—it has been said that vengeance is a dish best served cold. We can wait patiently for the moment when we get our chance for payback. Forgiving people is much harder than wanting to get revenge.
Peter knew that the question of forgiving people was a very difficult one: he knew that the Jewish Scriptures, the part of the Bible we call the Old Testament, did not have much time for forgiveness. In the Old Testament it is ‘an eye for eye and a tooth for a tooth”.
Most Jewish people would have wondered about what Jesus had to say about forgiveness, which is why Peter goes up to Jesus one day and asks him, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Peter would have been looking for clarification: all this talk about forgiving people, what exactly does it mean?
As well as the Scriptures, The Jewish people paid great attention to the rabbis, the religious teachers. Rabbinic teaching was important to ordinary people because it helped them live out in their everyday lives the laws set down in the Scriptures.
The rabbis had spoken about forgiveness. Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said “He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must not do so more than three times”, while Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said, “If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him; commits an offence once, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time they do not forgive”.
Jewish teachers got this idea, that it was right to forgive three times, from the prophet Amos. In the book of Amos, God judges the various nations for their wrongdoings, “for three sins and for four”, it says in Amos. From these verses of Scripture the rabbis decided that God would forgive a person up to three offences, but the fourth offence would be punished. They believed that man could not be more forgiving than God, so forgiveness was limited to three times.
When Peter goes to Jesus and asks Jesus how often he should forgive someone, he goes much further than the rabbis, “should I forgive a person seven times?” he asks.
Why he chose seven, we are not sure. Seven was the Jewish number for perfection; seven was the number which showed something was complete; the Lord rests on the seventh day having completed his creation. Perhaps Peter thought that, having reached seven, forgiveness could go no further.
What does Jesus answer? “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times”. In other words, forgiveness should continue until it becomes a habit, until we lose count of the number of times we have forgiven someone.
This is a hard teaching, it goes against human nature. The first thought we have is, “how are we going to get our own back?” The idea of continually forgiving someone is not easy to take in. Why should we do this? Why can’t we stick with the Old Testament, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. Taking Jesus’ teachings and applying them to our lives is difficult.
Jesus tells Peter a story about forgiveness. A man owes a great deal, let’s say, to keep the values relative to the proportions in the Bible, €250,000,000, and he goes to the man to whom he owes the money and says he is unable to pay. The man who is owed the money cancels the whole debt. The man who has had his debt cancelled then goes off to a man who owes him €500 and takes the man to court because he cannot pay.
When the rich man hears that the man who has been forgiven the huge debt would not forgive a tiny debt, he has him thrown into prison because he failed to forgive something small.
What Jesus is saying to us is that God has forgiven us. All the things we do wrong, all our failures, all our weaknesses, God forgives the whole lot. Because God does this, because he accepts us with all our failings, we have the hope of a life after this one. We have the hope of something we cannot even imagine—because God forgives us. But, in return, God expects us to play our part, if he forgives us, then we are to forgive others. Forgiveness doesn’t come to us easily.
Forgiveness is a costly thing. Our forgiveness from God cost him the life of his Son; the heart of the Christian faith is Jesus dying so that we might be forgiven. In the words of Mrs Alexander’s hymn, ‘There is a green hill far away’.
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good,
That we might go at last to Heav’n,
Saved by His precious blood
Forgiveness is costly: it is not easy; it is not pleasant.
Forgiveness is the hard choice to make. What Jesus says to us is that our hope of getting to heaven depends upon us making that choice.
There are times when being a Christian is not easy, but the choice must be made.