Forgiveness is …
With the increase in crime and violent acts across our society, many victims and loved ones are left to suffer with the pain and bad memories. This suffering can sometimes lead to bitterness and unforgiveness. Forgiveness is therefore critical to the restoration of our lives and our society.
Peter asks the all-important question in Matthew 18:21, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” Peter was trying to discover a limit for extending the grace of forgiveness. Like Peter, we all want to put limits on what or how much we need to forgive. It might not be about a number, but we may have a threshold that we don’t want to cross, a limit we won’t go beyond.
There are at least two barriers of an unforgiving heart – revenge and resentment. Because it feels comforting, and we have a right to be angry, we’ve all asked the question of “how many times do I have to forgive this person?” Peter may have been thinking of similar situations in his own life. Peter responded to his own question by suggesting that seven times would be a good limit. The Rabbis back then taught that you had to forgive someone three times and then you could retaliate. As we say, once is an accident, twice a coincidence but three times is a habit. In fact, they mistakenly taught that God only forgives three times! Peter doubled that and added one for good measure, thinking his answer would impress Jesus.
Forgiving someone seven times is commendable. Most of us get frustrated if we have to forgive someone twice. By human standards, what Peter said was admirable. But Peter wanted a number, a limit, a place where he could finally say, “that’s it!”
Jesus’ response was unexpected and disarming. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Matthew 18:22. Jesus is suggesting here that we not count the number of times we forgive someone, but that we are to have a forgiving heart and release people quickly and freely.
In Matthew 18 we read of a king who decided to call in all his debts. He sent out his collection agents and they came back with a man who owed the king a considerable amount of money. This man owed the equivalent of about US$25 million, the annual income for the entire kingdom. We’re not sure exactly how he ran up this kind of debt but it’s clear that he would never be able to repay it. Since he couldn’t pay the debt, “… the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.” The king knew he could never recoup all his losses, he just wanted to get back whatever he could. The servant fell on his knees and said, “Be patient with me, and I will pay back everything”; he was desperate.
The king took pity on him, forgave the debt and released him. This was at great personal cost to the king. By assuming the debt, he allowed it to go unpaid and thus impoverished his own treasury. He wiped the slate clean, erased the books, and cancelled the debt. The man owed him nothing.
This is what forgiveness is all about. To forgive is to cancel the social debt owed to you by another person. To choose to forgive is in essence saying, “Your slate has been wiped clean. You don’t owe me anything, I release you from ever having to pay me back.”