Believe it or not, a lot of the fuss about this passage comes over the numbers Jesus used.
Matthew quotes him as saying 77 is the number of times people should forgive. Another gospel writer uses “seventy times seven,” or 490. Proof! some say, that the Bible is all made up because the gospel writers don’t agree.
The fuss over Jesus’ figure of speech carries some irony. For one, neither number would be taken literally by Jesus or the people he talked to, anymore than the phrase “24/7” would be taken literally by someone today. And there’s another dimension of this teaching that ought to be a lot harder to handle than the number dispute.
What Jesus meant with his figure of speech was not that either the 78th or the 491st person who did a Christian wrong just won the reverse lottery and the jackpot was about to hit him. He meant that a Christian should forgive every wrong, every time.
Step on the brake, Bubba. Every wrong, every time? Yup.
OK, well I know that I, like a lot of people, keep hold of too many grudges and I get upset over stuff I should let go. And I know that God wants me to let that stuff go and me saying, “Well, you don’t know what he did,” doesn’t really convince a guy who forgave the people who nailed him to a tree.
But let’s get serious and remember that not every pain in the world is something that people can overlook. Even if it’s never happened to us, we probably know someone who has real hurt. People someone lied about, or people made victims of crime or any number of other actions that caused real wounds that go deep into their spirits and minds. Does Jesus’ teaching ask them to forgive the people who hurt them?
Yes, it seems it does. Every wrong, every time. But what if the people who did the wrong thing aren’t sorry about it? What if they don’t ask for forgiveness or don’t care about who they’ve hurt? Do those of us who’ve been hurt say, “Oh, just pretend it never happened?”
Look, I’m not someone who wants to rewrite the Bible to suit my own ideas, but I just can’t match all this up. God cares about what happens to his children – look a few pages over in Matthew and Jesus seems pretty clear that how we treat one another has an impact on how God views us. Would God consider his children’s pain just something to be wished away with happy words? Would God say, “Pretend it never happened.”
I can’t get my head around that, which must mean I’ve gone wrong somewhere. And I think it’s with the concept of forgiveness. I think we too often mix it up with reconciliation, which actually does need someone to repent and seek my forgiveness if they’ve done me wrong.
When someone harms me, in whatever way they do it, they’ve decided how they’re going to view me. Someone who swindles or robs me sees me as a source of income, or as someone who owns something they want to own. They’ve defined me, and they pretty much don’t care about me in any other way.
But I am obviously not just a source of income. Maybe “forgiveness” is my decision that I – not someone else -- define who I am. Maybe when I forgive someone I’ve decided to reject their view of me in favor of my view of me.
Isn’t that one way to see what God does when he forgives? We’re sinners. Whether we were born that way or whether we were just really good students, we’ve ended up separated from God and unable to close the break between us. But God decided that he would not allow our sin to define us or our relationship with him. We couldn’t fix it, but he could and did, and told us that we could be defined by his grace and love.
The first servant in the story, the one who owed so much, was offered that chance. His life didn’t have to be defined by who owed whom and how much. But he rejected that choice when he went after the second servant, who owed him some money. His master declared that since he wanted to be defined by debt, he would be, and suffer the consequences thereof.
I think we’ve had it wrong – forgiveness doesn’t let the other guy off the hook. It frees us. Thanks be to God for his liberating forgivness.