NRS Matthew 18:21 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?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
How much forgiveness is enough? It’s relevant at the moment, since one Presidential candidate says he has never asked anyone for forgiveness and the other one seems to be unable to get any from the public because of past sins. What does forgiveness mean?
Jesus said, “Seven times seventy is enough.” Peter is seeking Jesus’ approval. He has heard Jesus talk about forgiveness. I’m sure the question must have occurred, “How long do I have to do this?” He thought it might be virtuous to forgive seven times, the number of perfection in the Jewish faith. If some one does the same thing to you seven times in a row and you forgive them, you’re a pretty good person. I’ve always thought, “On number eight, could I slap the daylights out of them?” I’ve had my troubles with anger. I’m a man.
Jesus says, “No, seventy times seven.” Four Hundred and Ninety times. Why did Jesus pick that number? You may remember (or not) in the Hebrew scriptures that when Cain was driven out after killing his brother, he was worried that as a murderer he would be a fugitive in the world and who ever found him might kill him. He asked God for a mark of protection. We don’t know what that was but God put some kind of sign or mark upon him so that if anyone took vengeance upon Cain, he would be avenged seven fold.
Later on, one of his descendants, Lamech, made this boast, “If Cain was avenged seven fold, I shall be avenged seventy seven fold.” In other words it was the principle of endless revenge.
God placed that upon Cain as a kind of protection. There is a rightful self defense. There is a right use of rage against injustice. The problem is, where do we stop? Avenging ones people and avenging ones wrongs is a way to address the need for security. In ancient times it was a means by which wrongs were righted.
Except that it never solves the problem. There is a problem of keeping it under control once the avenging starts. How far do we need to go before it’s enough for what “they” did to us?
Sometimes we quote the code of Hamarobi. I’ve heard it a lot when I tune in on talk radio, as long as I can listen to it, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” You hear people saying it as justification for reprisals.
It’s interesting that they are using that as a call for vengeance. When in fact what the code of Hammurabi did was to limit vengeance, because in the ancient world they didn’t stop with an eye and a tooth. They took some other things with it. They killed all of your kin and all the people that lived in your village and all of the people that lived in your country. There was never enough that was good enough for you and yours. We’ll poke out your eyes, pull your teeth and chop off your heads for good measure.
Hammurabi’s law was not a rationale for revenge but a way to stop it and say, “Alright, he pokes your eye out, you poke his. You’ve got to stop there.” No more. But it didn’t work. Somehow when you get a pound of my flesh, I want two and ½ of yours. After all, this isn’t just anybody you’ve offended. This is me and mine.
When Jesus said seventy times seven, he said it on purpose. He intentionally invoked the memory of Lamech and Cain. In the kingdom of God, the principle of revenge is reversed and done away with. It is no longer the cycle of vengeance that solves the problems of life. It is the principle of forgiveness. It is inexhaustible, too.
Now we know we are dealing with something strange and new and hard, because you and I are pretty sure that we deserve to hang onto our brooding about what somebody else has done to us.
There are three principles of living available to us—endless revenge, proportional retailiation, or endless forgiveness. If I am angry, I lean toward the first one. If I have been treated unfairly, the second. If I have consciousness of my own sins, I hope for the third. I don’t have a clue how to inject it into our politics, but I don’t see us trying very hard.
And which is the better way for humanity? Isn’t it obvious? Revenge, no matter how you count it, never seems to solve anything. It sows the hate for the next generation. Look at the racial resentments of our time. Look at the Middle East. Look at facebook, come to think of it. How are we doing? How secure are we with the greatest arsenal in history? Still afraid?
Forgiveness doesn’t play well to the baying hounds of politics. Machiavelli said that there are two ways to lead—fear or love. Both work.
So, I’m out of step with our time, but I’m betting on love. Don’t think of it as weakness at all. Love endures everything and outlasts all things, according to the Bible. I wonder if it seems weak because we’re afraid to try it. Afraid to turn the other cheek for fear of a bullet in the head.
Forgiveness is painful, costly, hard work, asking us to invest ourselves, commit ourselves, involve ourselves, in a hard way, not an easy one. My pray is that we won’t take the easy way out, which endless revenge is—and remember that it comes at an impossible price with collateral damage that never stops. I’ll take my chances with Jesus.
I have a song called “Forgiveness” that one of my friends really loves. I sang it at a Pastor’s Conference in Georgia once and a famous biblical scholar named Luke Timothy Johnson really liked it. So I post it here for you to listen. You can buy my music on iTunes, Amazon mp3 and at my music site, www.gafurr.com