The Gruesome Reality of Forgiveness
Jesus gave some pretty earth-shattering teachings while he was on earth, but one that often stands out to me is his take on forgiveness. Perhaps it is because I struggle forgiving people when they have wronged me; my pride often leads me to trouble if I do not keep it in check.
I’m a lot like Peter in this way.
Towards the middle of Matthew 18, Peter asks this fairly pointed question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive a person who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
Now, to Peter, and likely those standing within earshot of this question, this would have been considered pretty large amount. I mean, consider it in your own circumstances. What would it take for you to forgive someone seven times? You would think of yourself pretty highly, wouldn’t you?
Then Jesus responds by taking what we know, and flipping it upside down to align it with the way he saw the world: “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
When Peter heard this I imagine his mouth went agape and his eyes widened a bit. Jesus, you couldn’t possibly be serious, could you? But Jesus was firmly serious, and he would go into a parable of a generous king and a greedy servant that I recommend you read. However, I want to dial-in on this “seven and seventy-seven” thing, because there is something considerably profound about those numbers.
Do you think Jesus was concerned about math during this Interaction? Like, if you can make it to seventy-six, you are just one forgiving away from being freed from your obligation! Of course not! Jesus had something more wondrous in mind.
Lamech and the Seventy-Seven
Let me briefly set this up, and I promise it will pay off.
There is a set of brothers in Genesis 4 that are fairly popular: Cain and Abel. One of the most notable things about these brothers was they were the first occurring of murder (and death in general) in the Bible. Cain grows jealous of Abel’s good favor with God and kills him in the fields. It’s a sad and terrible portrait of the human condition.
And as if things couldn’t seem bleaker for this new, “very good” creation, we are then introduced to one of the descendants of Cain. A man named Lamech. He is actually a poet, giving us one of the very first poems in the Bible, but one that has a gruesome plot. He sings of a young man who tried to cross him and celebrates taking the young man’s life.
He then chants: “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
Then the poem ends and we never hear about Lamech again.
Jesus and the Seventy-Seven
So why is Jesus’ answer to Peter about forgiveness a hyperlink back to Lamech? When you juxtapose these two stories, the striking differences illuminate Jesus’ point.
In the same way Lamech joyfully and liberally killed, you are to joyfully and liberally forgive.
This was inordinately important to Jesus and fundamentally critical for his followers to understand. There is no ceiling of your forgiveness because there is no ceiling for God’s forgiveness. It is unfairly given, therefore we should unfairly forgive those who wrong us.
Peter was looking for the parameters of the kingdom Jesus was bring about, as I so often find myself doing. Many times I try to limit how powerful, loving, forgiving, and accepting God is because I myself cannot match it. God’s portrait of forgiveness can be seen on full display on the cross; there is not a single person who does not fall under the umbrella of God’s love.
As you continue to follow Jesus and learn from him, I caution there will be many times when he will punch you in the gut like he does here. Jesus had something much bigger in mind and over time he will subtly reveal earth-shattering realities of what it means to be his follower.
But for now, who do you need to joyfully and liberally forgive?