This week I made an interesting discovery while reading Matthew 18. In the 21st verse of that chapter, Peter asks Jesus a question about how many times he should forgive his brother. We’re not sure what prompted that question but perhaps it had to do with a hypothetical disagreement or one that was more real in Peter’s personal experience. It is a question that may emerge from time to time in our own life experiences. There may be people in the church that have let us down, perhaps even betrayed us after demonstrating sincerity in friendship or in some collegial work. It may be that someone in our family regularly offends us because of his or her arrogance, insensitivity, or intended acts of injury.
It is particularly difficult to forgive those who are close to us — in our immediate families, or in our church families. I suppose it is so because of the strong bonds that exist due to sharing in the same culture over an extended period of time. Sometimes it seems that siblings have ways of intentionally trying to hurt their brothers and sisters because of the emotional/psychological need for an experience of personal value or importance. It is a matter of seeking affirmation the wrong way — through a kind of one-upmanship — instead of through seeing one’s value from God’s perspective.
Forgiveness is especially important and often the most difficult in marriage. Where the bonds of connection are the deepest, there also may exist the deepest hurts. Unless smaller offences are dealt with quickly, the rift can speedily grow deeper to the point of more serious offence and hurt.
But there are other instances of offensive relationship in the human family that also may require forgiveness. It could be that offence happens in the neighbourhood, in a working environment, or even less personal connections as in relation to government or other groups of people.
Peter wonders whether seven times is the limit of forgiveness. It is difficult to know why he chose that number. Maybe it was recognized as the number of perfection and finality. But Jesus’ answer multiplies the number by ten, perhaps as a way of letting us know that forgiveness, which has its foundation in the very character of God, is a matter of infinity!
However, there is likely another reason why Jesus may have answered in this way. It has to do with a reference to such a number in the 4th chapter of Genesis. There, in verse 24, we read that a man named Lamech, murdered someone in the same way his great-grand-father Cain had. Though God punished Cain for his murder by making him a wanderer in the land, He also promised him mercy by protecting him from any who would seek to kill him — promising vengeance on any such seven times. Lamech seeks justification for his own acts of vengeance, in the mercy Cain had received from God. But in the case of Lamech, quite boastfully, he takes vengeance into his own hands by promising vengeance 77 times.
It seems that Jesus has this incident in mind in his answer to Peter. Rather than pouring out vengeance on his enemies as Lamech boasted, Jesus speaks in terms of extending mercy and forgiveness 77 times to our offenders. It is an amazing demonstration of the contrast between God’s mercy and man’s way of securing justice! The story of God’s willingness to take the initiative in exercising vengeance on Cain’s enemies reminds us of Paul’s reference to leaving vengeance in God’s hands (Romans 12:19).
Forgiveness, then, is a theme that is rooted in the mercy of God as seen even in the Old Testament. As God was gracious to Cain, despite the seriousness of his crime, so He is toward us. And this is what he longs for in relation to those who offend us. (Another powerful illustration of this principle in the Old Testament is the way Joseph committed himself to forgive his brothers despite the seriousness of their offence toward him — Genesis 50).
In the Matthew passage, Jesus follows up his conversation with Peter about forgiveness by sharing a story of the importance of forgiveness as reflecting the forgiveness God has extended toward us. A man who owed his master much is forgiven by his pleading, only to take vengeance on one of his own servants for the money he owed him. On hearing of this abuse of his forgiveness, the master changes his mind about the forgiveness he has extended to the servant and casts him into prison until he has paid the last penny.
Jesus’ point is that those who know they have been forgiven much should extend that same kind of mercy to those who offend against them. It is a message that is repeated often in the New Testament, also being included in the Lord’s Prayer.
We need to live in the spirit of multiplied forgivenesses to those who offend us. It is absolutely contrary to God’s will for Christians to retain bitterness toward those who sin against them. While some form of retribution for transgression is a divine right granted to the civil courts of our day, ultimately it is important to commit the justice of our cause to the One who is absolutely just and faithful.