TO CHEW ON: "Then Peter came to Him and said, 'Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?'
Jesus said to him, 'I do not say to you up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.'" Matthew 18:2-22
Peter's question is a follow-up to what Jesus has just taught about a sinner and church discipline. In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus told the disciples how to handle a person ("your brother" — a fellow believer) who had sinned against them.
The sinned-against individual was to first confront the sinner privately. If he remained unrepentant, the wronged person was to bring in an ever-widening circle until the church was involved. If a confrontation with the church didn't bring about repentance, the sinner could be banned from their fellowship and this earth-binding would be sanctioned by heaven (Matthew 18:18). Such treatment would guard the integrity and purity of the church, while at the same time encouraging the lonely sinner to be reconciled and again become part of the body.
Out of that conversation Peter asked (quite logically), "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?"
Jesus' answer probably surprised Peter. "Seventy times seven?" He no doubt thought that he was being generous by suggesting seven times. Seventy times seven would mean forgiving years' worth of offences.
However, Jesus' story of the two debtors is about a different thing than a church dealing with an unrepentant sinner. It's about the unrestricted grace of the kingdom of heaven and how that grace should impact the heart attitude of someone who has suffered a wrong. That attitude is not to be ruled in any way by whether the sinner repents.
I believe the prison part of this parable was very intentional on the part of Jesus. In a sidebar article about this story Jack Hayford says:
"The human capacity to forget God's gracious gift of forgiveness and allow smallness of soul to breed unforgiveness is soberingly warned against.
1] Jesus showed how unforgiveness can restrict what God would do in others. (Note: the jailed fellow servant is still in prison at the story's end, revealing the power of unforgiveness to 'bind' circumstances to an undesirable level of perpetual problem.)
2] Jesus teaches how the spirit of unforgiveness (the torturers, literally 'bill collectors') exacts its toll on our bodies, minds, and emotions.
3] Finally, every 'Kingdom' person is advised to sustain a forgiving heart toward all other persons ... the binding power of unforgiveness is potentially dangerous to any of us" - Jack Hayford, "Forgiveness," New Spirit-Filled Bible, p. 1324.
There is nothing ambivalent or subtle about the life lesson take-away from this parable. Forgive your brother's "trespasses" (and I believe these are things he/she is aware of or little to big ways he/she has offended you that are known only to you) from the heart, or you too will be delivered to the torturers. Unforgiveness is a self-inflicted prison.
PRAYER: Dear God, such unconditional forgiveness is easy to agree with in my head, but hard to live out. Please alert me to where I am nurturing an unforgiving attitude toward anyone. Help me to forgive. Amen.
MORE: Tenth Anniversary of 9/11
Today is the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York on September 11, 2001. It's a big opportunity to test our willingness to forgive.
For a biblical perspective on this event and a Christian response to it, read John Piper's brief message to his congregation on September 12, 2001 "Terrorism, Justice, and Loving Our Enemies."