Matthew 18:21–35 (NRSV)
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.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant
23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
Of all the disciplines of Christianity forgiveness is probably one of the hardest and most necessary ones. It is forgiveness that sets the followers of Jesus apart from the other faiths. Not so much that the other faiths do not have forgiveness included in their tenets but because the conditions for forgiveness are radically different.
Most people believe that forgiveness has conditions, meaning that if someone is remorseful then you should forgive. This is not how Christ taught his followers to forgive. They forgive first and then would seek repentance for the wrong doing after forgiveness has already happened. Last week we discussed how if someone in your community were to sin against you, or to hinder or cause harm to your relationship that it is your responsibility to go to them to attempt to restore the relationship. If they do not respond to you then you were to take others with you to again try to restore the relationship. And if they still do not respond to take the community or church with you, if they still do not respond then we are then to treat them as gentiles and begin the ministry of building a relationship all over. We cannot do this without forgiveness being at the very core of our faith.
To forgive is to let go, to leave behind, and to depart from. If we are forgiving sin or actions that have caused harm to our relationships we are letting go of the hurt not allowing it to control the future of our relationship. That I think is the key. Not letting the hurt control the future of the relationship. When we let the harm someone has done to us, either intentionally or un-intentionally, control the future of our relationship we are letting sin, or anything that hinders our relationships with others or with God, control our lives.
Have you ever really thought about that? When we lack forgiveness we are letting sin control our lives. Jesus came to free us from the grips of sin, he suffered on the cross to release the bondage of sin from our lives. He lived to teach and show us a lifestyle where forgiveness and grace dominated and vengeance faded to the background. But it is extremely difficult to live a lifestyle of forgiveness and grace because we live around people that are just plain irritating.
This is where the great theologian Peter comes to help us out. Peter asks, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Before we move on I want us all to recognize that Peter is actually being very gracious when he says this. The rabbinical teachings of the day said that it was only necessary to forgive someone three times, so Peter knowing that Jesus was teaching grace, repentance and forgiveness of sins was actually going above and beyond the teachings of the religious leaders. Seven is a good number, it is filled with powerful symbolism, and grace. The number six is the number that represents mankind, yet the number seven represents the completeness of man in communion with God during the Sabbath, where all has been created and God rested in the pleasure of his creation and we rest in his glory as well. So by suggesting the sevenfold forgiveness he is actually using the creative and imaginative portions of his brain to interact with God. It is actually a great suggestion and if we would actually forgive a mere seven times our world and our relationships with each other would be much stronger. But Jesus answers him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
This is where the language and translations get pretty interesting, because other translations will translate this passage as seventy times seven. For most of us because we live in an era where we have things like mathematic and algebra we immediately begin to calculate this in our minds and we come up with a number 490. This is a pretty big number, and even if our minds do the math we get the general idea of what is being said, that we need to forgive a lot. But ancient cultures did not do math in the same ways that we do. If you think common core is confusing the mathematics of the ancient pre-Arabic number systems is even more confusing. Because of this very few people knew much about numbers so when they use large numbers it is generally in the figurative sense, so in this case it simply means un-calculable. So how many of us are actually going to keep a chart to track our forgiving of sin to the 490th time?
But what is interesting is that even though it simply means that we should be looking at it as forgiving without ceasing, Jesus is also speaking very symbolically. If we would look at Genesis chapter 4 we would get a clearer understanding of what Jesus is saying. This chapter of Genesis gives us one of the clearest pictures of a people devoted to God and people devoted to themselves because this chapter begins with the story of Cain and his brother Abel. Most of us know that Cain and Abel both offered sacrifices to God, Cain offered a gift from the fields and Abel offered a gift from the herds. Some look at this story and see that God accepted the gift of the animal because of the blood, but I think the attitude of the giver had more to do with the acceptance of God than the actual gift, the language used states that Cain brought some of the harvest, where Abel brought the best of the herds. Suggesting that the reason for the rejection is that Cain’s gift was not the best or first of the crop but was what was left after he took his personal portion. But because of the rejection from God Cain became jealous of his brother Abel and killed him. As a result God cursed Cain and then guarded him saying that anyone that would kill Cain out of vengeance would be met with sevenfold vengeance, I want us to remember that number seven. Cain went on to become a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather to the sixth generation. This man of the sixth generation was a man by the name of Lamech. It was Cain’s line that began civilization, Cain built the first city, and Lamech’s family was the one that first began participating in the cultural arts like poetry and metal working. We look at Cain with disdain but I want us to remember that Cain’s descendants are in the genealogy of Jesus as well those from the line of Seth (Adam and Eve’s third child). And Lamech is included in that list of names. With that being said it does not mean that this family and this budding culture that came from Cain’s descendants were good people. Lamech wrote a poem to his wives stating that if Cain was avenged sevenfold than he would be avenged seventy times seven times. From this story we get the separation of the people of God and the people of man. The sons of God were the ones that followed the traditions of Abel, where the sons of man were the ones that followed the paths of Lamech. The path of vengeance and selfishness. Seeking only personal gain instead of building a society based on the completeness of creation in communion with God. Which leads us to the story of Noah, where the sons of God were marrying the daughters of man and thus the world was growing increasingly more selfish and focused on a lifestyle of vengeance and less on grace and communion.
These stories of the ancients were very real to the Hebrew people during the time of Jesus. They grew up listening to these stories and learning from the sins of the past and how the lifestyles of those ancient people would lead to the trouble. Even within the discourse between Peter and Jesus we see a parallel between the conversations between the ancients; Cain would be avenged sevenfold and Peter seeks to forgive sevenfold, Lamech will avenge seventy times seven times and Jesus teaches that we should forgive seventy times seven times. The kingdoms of man live in a culture of cyclical and infinite vengeance and the kingdom of God is a culture built on cyclical and infinite grace.
To me that is profound and powerful. We live in a culture that where vengeance is often the dominant theme. We hear sermons preached from pulpits across the land that tell us to repent or chance the fires of hell, but what are they really teaching, often it has very little to do with the love and grace of the kingdom of God, but instead is focusing on the vengeance of man. We hear on the news of extremist groups perpetuating a culture of death and vengeance and what is the response of many from a nation that claims to be built on the Christian faith and Christian values? Sadly it is not a message of grace, but is often marinated with the same ingredients of vengeance. This is not the Kingdom of God, this is the kingdoms of man working against each other, this is the sons of God becoming intimate with the daughters of man and letting the easy road of selfishness, vengeance and sin dominate the life. Instead of taking the hard road of building up the community on grace.
The kingdom of God is not one that is easy to enter. It is a lifestyle that takes discipline. It is a life that requires a community and a church that meets together to provide encouragement. Where the weak are encouraged and strengthened by those that are stronger. To live the lifestyle of Christ we need the constant communion with God in prayer where the very spirit of God will fill, teach and direct our lives showing us where we have hindered the development of the relationships with mankind and with God and providing the grace and strength to reconcile with each. It also requires that we respond to the Spirit of God and move out into the community around us serve those sons and daughters of Man so that maybe through the example of our lives lived among them they may begin to listen to that voice of God that is ever urging them to repent and turn to God.
As we prepare to enter into this time of open worship, I want us to consider these lifestyles the sevenfold and seventy times sevenfold lifestyles, one built on vengeance and one built on mercy, one built on selfishness the other of grace. I ask which culture are we building in the community around us. Are we living in the Kingdom of man or are we living in the Kingdom of God?