The Apostle Peter once came to Jesus with a question: “Lord, how often do I have to forgive?” (Matthew 18:21).
“Lord,” he seems to be saying, “I’m a reasonable man. I want to do the right thing. If my brother or sister keeps sinning against me, how many times do I let it go by? Maybe, say, seven times?”
It seemed reasonable. It seemed fair to Peter. To be honest, it seems fair to most of us. But you know how Jesus answered: “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Just FYI, translations vary here. Jesus may be alluding to Genesis 4, and, I’m told, depending upon whether he is quoting from the Hebrew or the Greek version of the Old Testament, the translation of the number varies. In English, some versions render the number as seventy times; others, as seventy-seven times or seventy times seven times, etc.
Unless you’re a Bible translator, or are planning to start counting offenses lest you forgive too much, does it matter? There is no limit to forgiveness, Christ is saying. You must forgive your brother “times without number”!
“But, Lord,” we’re tempted to protest, “aren’t you carrying this forgiveness thing too far? You don’t know what that person has done to me!” (Ever notice what a nice, warm, fuzzy concept forgiveness is—until you actually have something to forgive?)
But still Jesus speaks clearly: “Forgive.” He never says that it’s easy or simple. He just says that it is absolutely necessary.
To help us understand, Jesus does what he does so well. He tells a story. You may remember the tale. It’s the story of the unforgiving servant.
It seems that a very wealthy king once showed great mercy by forgiving the debt of a servant who owed him a huge sum amounting to millions of dollars. As this freshly forgiven servant was leaving the king, he met a creditor of his own who owed him twenty dollars or so. He lunged at the man, tore at his throat, and screamed at him to pay his debt immediately. The poor fellow could not pay, so the servant had him thrown into jail.
Remember the king’s reaction to this injustice? He is absolutely furious. He immediately reinstates the wicked man’s debt and sends him to prison until he can pay the entire amount.
Jesus makes the point clearly: “That is how my Father in heaven will treat every one of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (Luke 18:35).
Our Lord’s words are as true today as they were when he first spoke them. Forgiveness is not an optional item in Christianity. To say, “Dear Lord, I need your help to even want to try to forgive” may be absolutely honest and realistic. To say, “Lord, I’ll forgive when that person acknowledges wrong, asks for it, deserves it,” is just another way of saying, “Lord, I refuse to forgive.”
If we would receive forgiveness, we must be forgiving people.