CAMINANDO WITH JESUS: Seventy Times Seven
Peter came and said to Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 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. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 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.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 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. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
- Matthew 18:21-35
As I am writing this commentary, the U.S. is grappling, once again, with another horrific police shooting. This time a man named Jacob Blake was shot seven times, in the back, by a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Then, three nights later, an armed civilian shot and killed two protesters.
Here I am trying to wrap my head and heart around this senseless violence and our nation’s reckoning with racial injustice. Then, I’m supposed to write about the message of forgiveness in this week’s gospel? Apparently, as in the parable above, Jesus would tell me a resounding, “Yes.” I think we can all agree that’s hard.
Prior to this gospel reading, Jesus has been teaching the disciples on themes from Isaiah about the messianic king who reigns by becoming a servant and will lay down his life for the kingdom. Peter and the disciples, as is often the case, don't get it. The upside-down nature of Jesus’s messianic kingdom inverts all of our values systems, including forgiving instead of getting revenge and doing good rather than harm. Peter asks how many times he has to forgive a church member who has wronged him. Jesus says not a mere seven (which seems generous) but 70 times seven - wow! Seventy times seven is supposed to represent an infinite number, according to biblical number symbolism, but regular math shows it to be 490 times. Going even further, New Testament scholar and Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright says that “if you’re still counting how many times you’ve forgiven someone, you’re not really forgiving them at all, but simply postponing revenge.”
I can relate to these sometimes clueless disciples. On many levels, these teachings are straightforward, especially since we hear them often enough in church. However, let Jesus’s words sit on your heart long enough for them to permeate and begin to nudge you. Sure, I’m all in on getting forgiveness for myself, but forgive others, especially if I don’t think they deserve it? Sign me up for others to forgive my debts but not so much for someone else I believe wronged me or others. There is also the topic of repercussions, consequences and punishment; that’s a whole other discussion.
If you ever need some theological perspective, I encourage you to ask a young person their thoughts. They often get right to the heart of the matter. One youth wrote to me that her favorite example of forgiveness comes from the aftermath of the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
On June 17, 2015, a white supremacist named Dylann Roof attended their church’s bible study and carried out a mass shooting, killing nine people. Two days later, family members of the victims and other congregation members stood at his bond trial to speak. Nadine Collier, the daughter of 70-year-old victim Ethel Lance said, “I forgive you. You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.” They didn’t by any means excuse what Dyann Roof did and they made sure to speak on the consequences of his actions. Yet in the wake of a terrible, violent, hell-like event, they chose to spread love and pray for the shooter.
Another young lady told me, “I see forgiveness in God as he watches each of his children sin day after day and always forgives us, even if it doesn't look like we are trying to do better. He has unconditional love for us and always tries to help us better ourselves, but [he] doesn't get mad when we make the wrong decisions. And that, I believe, is the ultimate forgiveness.”
That, my friends, is why Jesus is telling us to forgive in such an extravagant way. We have all received the abundant and limitless grace of God. He loves us, forgives us and blesses us to be a blessing to others. Forgiveness is hard, but with God all things are possible.
So I am working on forgiving the shooters in Wisconsin. I’m not there yet, but I’m at 37. Pray for us all to get to true forgiveness before we get close to the 490 times.
Leah Dail is the assistant youth missioner for the Diocese of North Carolina.
Tags: Caminando with Jesus