The Number of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35

Jesus was a good teacher but his lessons weren’t always easy ones to follow. This lesson begins with Peter asking the question about how often he should forgive someone who does something to him. It’s easy to remember that Jesus told him to do it seventy-seven times, eleven times more than Peter had suggested in his question. Jesus then tells the story of the creditor and debtor. That could be a straight-forward story but Jesus adds the twist of the former debtor also being a creditor to someone else, someone who does not receive the mercy his creditor had received from his master.

The word debt these days is such a common one, and the situation in which the slave finds himself, owing money he can’t repay immediately and asking to make installment payments, is a very common thing to do for us. People get into debt for all kinds of reasons, some or most of which is their own fault, but sometimes the result of misfortune such as reductions in force at work, catastrophic illness, or death of the primary breadwinner. Sometimes people are able to work with their creditors to pay back at least some of what is owed with the creditor forgiving the rest but at other times that doesn’t work at all, and so the next step is bankruptcy, a punishment for those who have to go through it.

The story doesn’t always have to be about money, though. The lending and paying back of money makes a good metaphor for other situations that come up in life and that result in breaches between people, whether they’re friends, acquaintances, business/investment partners, or even strangers. How often does a person get hurt financially, physically, or emotionally by someone else who never acknowledges the damage? Here’s where Jesus’ lesson gets really hard. How do you forgive someone who has sinned against you, hurt or damaged you in some way, but who goes on their way as if nothing happened? We understand that when someone confesses or apologizes to us, we’re supposed to be gracious and forgive them, just as we expect to be forgiven if we need to apologize or confess or even repay a debt to another person. It’s like a cycle: damage or hurt, apology or restitution, forgiveness. If that second step in the cycle is not present, how we move from number one to number three, hurt to forgiveness? Jesus doesn’t say how, he just says we have to do it if we are his followers.

When Jesus told Peter to forgive seventy-seven times, he wasn’t just pulling the figure out of the air. Seven is a number indicating completeness, like seven days in the week for creation. Peter asked if forgiving seven times would be enough but Jesus asked for more than ten times that plus yet another seven, a number that adds rather than multiplies which is the usual translation in most Bibles (seventy times seven). In short, forgiveness should be offered so many times that the person loses count of them. It is a complete and total forgiveness, not dependent on how many times it must be requested or granted to be effective.

I have been both debtor and creditor, had debts forgiven and forgiven them as well. I’ve been hurt and also hurt others. I’ve been forgiven sometimes and sometimes not, just as I have forgiven sometimes and not others. Why didn’t I go all the way with it and forgive everybody seventy plus seven times? I think I have usually tried to, but I still don’t always forget the hurt or the damage. I think that’s part of the lesson; if I am in a relationship with someone, I run the risk of hurt or damage and I also have to risk forgiving completely. It’s the cost of relationship. It’s God’s way that even though I know that when I mess up, sin, miss the mark or any other possible euphemism for it, I am forgiven and the relationship continues. God forgives, and, I hope, forgets a lot better than I am able to do.

I think I’m counting on that forgiving and forgetting seventy-seven times’ worth. The trick now is to learn to do it myself and more importantly, to be willing to do it. It won’t be an overnight cure, that’s for sure.

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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