Matthew 18:21-22. “Then came Peter to Him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.”
Really? You want to keep track of all that? What was really behind Peter’s question?
Peter seems to have taken Jesus’ teaching about restoring an erring brother to fellowship within the church to a more personal level. He is asking, “Lord, how often do I forgive someone who sins against me personally?”
One wonders, then, why Peter landed on the number seven. The answer to that is found in the rule given by the Rabbis to their pupils, that you “Pardon a man once, that sins against another; secondly pardon him; thirdly pardon him; fourthly do not pardon him.” (This reference is taken from Gaebelein’s book on Matthew, and is credited to “Bab.Joma,” which I spent some time researching, and have concluded is part of tradition taught by the Rabbis. Anyone who can give more clarification is welcome to do so.)
It was taught that one must forgive three times. Peter must have thought he was going way beyond the call of duty in suggesting that seven times might be more in line with Jesus’ teachings. He’d missed the point.
Jesus’ answer was pure genius. “Peter, you poor man, don’t be so willing to keep track of offenses. You must forgive seventy times seven!”
Peter must have walked away counting on his fingers, realizing that Jesus had just told him that forgiveness must take place 490 times! Of course, Jesus was not telling us to keep count. The number seven, in Jesus’ economy, stood for perfection, infinity, and completion. We must continue to forgive those who have offended us until that process is completed. “To infinity and beyond,” according to one of today’s popular toys, Buzz Lightyear. To infinity and beyond, indeed, because God’s forgiveness toward us is infinite, perfect, and complete.
Forgiveness, for us mortals with very good memories for offence, is a process. It is not an event, as it is with God. He forgives, and the sin is wiped clean. He forgets what He forgives. We, however, struggle every day with recalcitrant memories that taunt us, tempt us, tease us not only to remember but to feed the memory. As one dear old saint said to me a few years back, “We Christians are guilty of nursin’ and rehearsin’!” I had just spend nearly an hour talking about the importance of forgiving in order to avoid bitterness of spirit, and she summed it up in one short sentence! We nurse our grievances, feeding the memory, and tell it over and over whenever we get the opportunity. Nursin’ and rehearsin’ indeed.
Jesus told Peter to just stop it. Forgive every single time the memory rears its ugly head. We are humanly unable to truly erase a memory, but we are divinely able to forgive every time the memory returns. What I have learned is that the more often I forgive, in the beginning of this process, the less often I need to forgive as time goes by. It just becomes of very little importance.
What a relief!