In Jesus day, the rabbis taught that forgiveness was important. They taught that repeated forgiveness was important. But they had limits. They taught that if a person sinned against you once, forgive them. Twice, forgive them, Three times, and you could write the person off.
Jesus taught that forgiveness was not a practice of our wills but evidence of the grace of God within us. Each week in the Lord’s Prayer we ask for forgiveness as we forgive others.
Peter is often the disciple who gets the worst press in the Gospels. He is the one who always says the dumbest things. But in his defense, he clearly took Jesus’ words to heart and he clearly tried to understand them and incorporate them into his life. In that way, Peter is a portrait every Christian who seeks after Jesus and who strives to model his or her life on Jesus’ teachings.
This morning Peter is admirably struggling with how to understand Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. The rabbis taught that to forgive someone three times was sufficient. Peter asks whether more than twice that number was enough. Was seven times enough?
Jesus answers, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times." Some translations say seventy times seven. But we would miss the point if we thought that the issue here is one of accounting, as if we could practice grace by use of a spreadsheet.
Our Lord has taught us instead, that forgiveness is not an act of the will, it is a condition of the heart; evidence of a gracious God within the lives we share.
Rather than focusing on the numbers maybe we should focus on the word forgive itself, or at least how it is used in the New Testament. A good understanding of how the New Testament uses this word forgive can show us what forgiveness looks like.
Peter asks Jesus, “How often should I forgive?” The word translated as forgive in that question appears 139 times throughout out the New Testament. If we look into the ways it is translated we can see a bit of a picture of what forgiveness looks like.
There are at least 18 different English words that are used to convey what the Greek word here means. Let me share with you some of them.
abandon desert leave neglect refuse
All of those sound rather negative. Abandonment is not a good thing. Being left or neglected isn’t either.
But consider these words in the context of someone injuring or insulting you. Consider them in light of the anger and resentment that might have caused you. Then we begin to get a better sense of forgiveness.
Abandon your grief. Desert your need for revenge. Leave behind the grudges you carry. Neglect nursing your anger. Refuse to let animosity define your relationships.
Forgiveness, as the New Testament teaches us, is not a static, ethereal state of spiritual enlightenment. It is an active and willful choice,much like the New Testament’s understanding of love. Let me offer you a paraphrase of Paul’s lofty words about love in the 13th chapter of 1st Corinthians. This will paint a beautiful picture of what forgiveness looks like:
Forgiveness is patient; forgiveness is kind; forgiveness is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Forgiveness never ends.
Forgiveness is a choice and sometimes it is a repeated choice. Sometimes we may have to forgive someone 77 times for just one single injury they have caused us.
Jesus knew forgiveness was difficult. He knew it was work and hard work at that. He knew it took time. That it why he would not give us a limit to the number of times we should forgive.
We should forgive because we have been forgiven. We should forgive because Christ himself has forgiven us. We should forgive because perhaps our forbearance with another person may be the only experience they have ever had of forgiveness.
We should forgive because Jesus told us to do so.