70×7: How Much Further?

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MATTHEW 18:21-35 ESV

[21] Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” [22] Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. [23] “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. [24] When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. [25] And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. [26] So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ [27] And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. [28] But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ [29] So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ [30] He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. [31] When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. [32] Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. [33] And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ [34] And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. [35] So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

I want to show you a scene from the tv show ‘Seinfeld’. In the storyline, the soup at this guy’s shop is unbelievable and he’s getting quite famous. But he is very particular about the way he does things and he’s known for turning customers away. George has messed up in the line before and left without soup. Today, he brings Elaine with him and if anyone knows anything about Elaine, she’s a walking mess. Watch what happens here…

SEINFELD CLIP

In the show, the shop owner is known as ‘The Soup Nazi,’ because he’s unforgiving in how he wants things to go. He protects himself by cutting others off.

We set limits on others, too, cutting them off when we want. We keep boundaries, trying to protect ourselves. When faced with the grace and mercy of God, we ask questions like, “How much longer do I have to put up with this? How much further do I have to go?” Now its one thing when there is danger in a situation or there is toxicity. We do not want to introduce harm into a relationship by allowing violence and we do not want to poison a community through the venom someone is bent on spreading. But forgiveness is about change—it is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.

Let’s look at our text. It is obvious that Peter is looking for limits as he asks Jesus’ how many times someone should be forgiven. He thinks he’s being gracious, offering up the number 7 for the times of forgiving someone. In Peter’s day, rabbis taught that 3 times of forgiveness is sufficient. But Peter goes beyond that and offers a larger number, one that in some situations represents the idea of ‘completion’ in Peter’s religious culture.

But Jesus goes way, way beyond that. Jesus gives a number that blitzes right past the rabbis; He blows right past Peter’s human attempt at being more compassionate than others. Jesus goes further and there’s no real end in sight to His forgiveness.

The number Jesus gives is a large number, meant to be really high to make a point. The number can be translated in the original language as either 70 times 7 or 77 because in Greek its written as an ‘idiom’—a linguistic device used to make a point, like saying ‘it’s raining cats and dogs.’ We get the magnitude of the point through the exaggeration.

But why? Why a seemingly limitless number for forgiveness? Because forgiveness has a purpose and practicing forgiveness brings about God’s desired result in the hearts of His people.

God is a God who has promised and declared to be with us, always. God is persistent and as He seeks to be in relationship with His people, He desires that persistent—presence be a mark of His people’s lives, too.

As the people of God, we are to walk with others. We reveal God and reveal Him best when we are living as He expects us to live. Therefore, because God forgives, we too forgive. And the point of forgiveness is to bring about change.

When someone is truly forgiven, they feel the grace and mercy that come from the person’s forgiveness. If accepted, that mercy can bring understanding that all as been made right again. The expectation of God is that we would truly forgive and bring about a lifestyle of forgiveness in others.

It is here that the truth of Jesus’ parable comes into play. A man is forgiven by his master of a debt he can never really pay off. But then, that same forgiven-man turns and refuses to forgive someone of a debt that can be paid off. When the master hears of this, he enacts the consequence deserving of the man’s original sin and debt. Mercy was taken away because the man never changed; he never truly accepted the gift of mercy if he was not willing to offer that same mercy to others.

The implications of the story are this, that the man who was shown mercy would show others mercy. And those shown mercy would then show mercy to others. To forgive and show mercy is what enables us to embrace others right where they’re at in life. Mercy makes reconciliation possible. Therefore, being able to forgive is the evidence of a changed heart and life.

But there’s still the question, “How much further? How much forgiveness?” I have found in my ministry that patient-persistence is what proves that God has changed my heart and enables others to receive not just my forgiveness but the forgiveness of God.

This was proven to me as a teenager in my youth ministry at my Methodist church. Through all my shenanigans—my sins, imperfections, and faults—I had youth counselors who forgave me with a genuine heart and moved me to maturity. I saw in them a persistent-presence, that they weren’t going anywhere, and that I could trust them. They walked with me, forgiving me and loving me, showing me mercy. I wanted to live that way and their lives melted my heart. Their forgiveness showed me God’s forgiveness and I was forever changed.

We can look to the prodigal son, how he squandered his father’s fortune and returned home to beg. But he didn’t have to beg. When he got home, his father was standing at the end of the driveway, waiting, and he embraced him. And did the father place conditions or limits on that forgiveness? No. He trusted that embracing his son in his returning would usher in the change that is needed.

How much further? All the way to the end. All the way to the breaking point of people’s selfish and stubborn wills. We will forgive them to repentance, hastening the turning of their hearts to God through our persistent-presence. Yes, a day will come, when the state of our hearts and the actions that sprang forth from our hearts will be judged. May we be found as those who showed forgiveness and lived mercifully because we were shown it from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Go, show mercy. Melt hearts. Walk with others. Be present. Be persistent. Show them God.

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