Forgiveness, How Often?
Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" (Matthew 18:21)
What elicited this question from Peter? What compelled him to ask how many times he should forgive someone who offended him?
Verse 15 is the exact corollary to this question of Peter. Jesus had just given detailed instructions as to how to relate to someone who has sinned against us. It involves a sequence of efforts to seek reconciliation starting with a private appeal, expanding to involving a few others to strengthen our attempts to win the heart of the offender and finally, if all other efforts fail to soften the heart and restore trust and fellowship, the case is to be brought to the entire body of believers still solely for the purpose of seek resolution, reconciliation and peace.
If all of that fails yet to draw the disconnected member into fellowship again, their choice to demand separation must be respected and they are then to be viewed as being outside the covenant relationship of the body, a person who is like all others outside the covenant who are in need of grasping the truth about God's passionate love and unconditional forgiveness.
This sounds like a great deal of work, a massive expenditure of emotional effort – and all for just one offense. This is not just a casual statement of forgiveness for some slight offense in passing only but is an all-out launching of an almost complicated, even questionable process that seemed extreme to the disciple's thinking. Is this really what the kingdom is about? Is this what Jesus had in mind for those who wanted to be great in the kingdom of God?
As Peter is ruminating over all of this he couldn't help but blurt out, “Is this what you really expect us to do? And just how many times are we supposed to do this drawn out, lengthy process if someone decides to go back to their old way of thinking and takes offense again? Are we supposed to tie up all the resources of the community repeatedly starting this process over and over again? How can anything else get done if we spend all our time trying to resolve offenses?
Peter thought he was being extremely magnanimous by suggesting that this whole process might be repeated up to seven times before giving up on continuing to try to forgive someone. He was stretching the common assumptions in his culture that one should be forgiven three times before giving up on them. So extending forgiveness to seven times must be the ultimate grace that people should do in order to keep peace among brethren.
But what was Peter missing here? And how much are we too missing the much larger context that should compel us to view offenses from a radically different perspective?
Interestingly, if we place this in the context of the prayer that Jesus gave to His disciples we find a disturbing revelation about the smallness of our own thinking in relation to what God has in mind for us. Not only did Jesus say we should pray for our sins to be forgiven proportional to how much we forgive others, but after the model prayer He went back to reinforce that point even more emphatically. Notice how Jesus expanded this issue of our need to forgive and the boundaries of forgiveness from heaven's perspective.
Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors... For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions. (Matthew 6:11-2, 14-15)
Without realizing it, Peter was really asking how many times he himself should be forgiven by God. For Jesus makes a very strong link between the forgiveness that we experience in our relationship with God to the relationships and forgiveness that we have with those around us.
Given this context this whole issue of forgiveness and offenses takes on enormous significance and seriousness. This is not some peripheral issue for resolving petty differences but strikes at the very core of what it means to be a radical follower of Jesus Christ. Either we will face this extremely uncomfortable issue of forgiving as many times as it takes if we want to remain in the love and forgiveness of God in our own lives; or we will remove our own souls from the life-giving presence of our own Savior by refusing to extend the same grace to someone else that is healing and saving our own souls. There apparently is no other option for the true Christian.
The other time a similar statement shows up in the gospels has interesting parameters to add to this issue of the link between forgiveness and our own salvation. This occurred right after the bizarre miracle of the curse fig tree and the surprise and shock the disciples experienced when they saw how quickly it had shriveled up and died after Jesus had pronounced a curse on it.
As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. Being reminded, Peter said to Him, "Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered." And Jesus answered saying to them, "Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father who is in heaven forgive your transgressions." (Mark 11:20-26)