I’ve been reading the gospels my whole life, yet I could never quite figure out what Jesus meant when he told Peter to forgive his brother seventy times seven. I had read and heard a few explanations over the years. Some have suggested that contemporary Jewish rabbis encouraged three times of forgiveness, drawing on the first chapter of Amos. Peter, by bringing his case of forgiving seven times, seems to be doubling up on it, as if to make sure Jesus knew he was going above and beyond.
I still don’t quite know what is going on in this moment, but Peter does sound exasperated. I mean I’ve forgiven him seven times! We don’t know who the “brother” is. Was it his literal brother Andrew? The gospel doesn’t indicate a wide rift between the two. Was it Matthew, the tax collector Jesus had inexplicably invited to be part of his inner circle of disciples? I imagine Peter had a hard time seeing past Matthew’s past of profiteering and grift.
We don’t know, really. What I have come to see in Jesus’ words here is that the point is not the number. It’s not that if you hit 490 on the forgiveness meter you can renew your grudge. Jesus is saying that forgiveness is less of a one-time moment of release and more a habit and a discipline.
Forgiveness is a rhythm. I didn’t really understand this until I was hurt deeply. I remember writing and teaching about forgiveness early in my life and doing it with such certainty and verve. But I hadn’t really been hurt that deeply. Sure, I had experienced my share of disappointments and defeats. I’d been offended. I’d even been hurt.
But never really wounded by someone I loved. Well, until I was. And then I discovered, afresh, the power of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 18. Peter is not coming to Jesus with petty insults and dumb offenses, things that annoy or even offend, but don’t wound. Peter is coming to Jesus with scars, cuts that run deep into the chambers of the heart.
You know what I mean.
About a decade ago I was hurt deeply by someone I respected and loved. There were moments I assumed I had moved past it. There was a breakthrough moment where I mourned the loss of the relationship. I named and admitted the hurt (like Joseph did in Genesis 50:20) and thought I was over it. And for a time, I walked in peace. But then something would stir up those old feelings again. A conversation. A memory. A sight. And it would all come flooding back, and I’d be angry again.
This is what Jesus means by seventy times seven. At least I think this is what he means. He is telling Peter that forgiveness is a rhythm. How often do I have to forgive my brother? To which Jesus seems to be saying, As many times as it takes.
How do we do this? Jesus followed this up with a parable about escalating levels of grace. A king forgives a member of his court who then will not forgive his lessor debtor. Jesus is saying this: the only way you can forgive your brother of his deep hurts against you is by drawing on the extravagant forgiveness your king has given you.
Peter wouldn’t quite understand this in this moment. He probably didn’t think he’d committed too many egregious offenses against his King. But there would be a moment in the not-too-distant future when Jesus needed him most and Peter, the one who thought he was courageous, who prided himself on his over-the-top forgiveness of his offending brother, would dramatically fail the Lord.
And now you see it. We only summon forgiveness because we’ve been forgiven. In fact, Jesus’ forgiveness of us is so outrageous, so overflowing that we can draw on it more than seventy times seven for our own deep hurts. Jesus is helping us here. He is telling us that all of our forgiveness doesn’t have to happen in a moment. He is telling us that in some ways, perhaps in smaller and smaller doses over time, the deepest hurts will always be with us. How often have you assumed you were over something only to discover that indeed you are not?
God can give us the strength to make forgiveness a habit and a rhythm. And over time, the pain can lessen, the hurt fade a bit more into the rearview mirror — if, and only if, forgiveness becomes a practice.
*I feel compelled to say that forgiveness is not the same thing as reconciliation or justice. Forgiveness is merely releasing ourselves from the anger and hatred that can drive us to despair or destructive behaviors. Sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible or even good.
This Week on The Way Home Podcast
This week on The Way Home podcast, I launch a special Easter series focused on the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus alongside my new book “The Characters of Easter.” Aaron Damiani, Anglican pastor at Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago, joins me in the first episode to talk about the liturgy of lent. In this conversation, he helps us think about lent and how to draw our hearts toward Easter.
Samuel James is a former colleague from my ERLC days and an amazingly gifted and incisive writer. His short post about the macabre social media habit we have of celebrating the deaths of people we don’t like is worth reading.
Christianity Today is releasing an important film on the 21 Coptic Martyrs martyred by ISIS a few years ago. Glad they are doing this project.
Joe Manchin is a key Senator in this new Congress. I’ve always found him intriguing. Here is a short profile.
My first seminary class was with Dr. D.A. Carson. It was an amazing tour-de-force of theology that has profoundly shaped me. I’ve read many of his books and love to hear him teach and preach. Here is a Canadian pastor speaking of Carson’s character in what he calls “The Carson Rule.”
Oh, and fill up your browser with some good news for a change. Here is what Southern Baptists are doing to help the devastated people of Texas.
What I’m Reading
I just finished Ross Douthat’s book, This Decadent Society. It’s really thought-provoking. I’ve just started Yuval Levin’s book, A Time to Build. My friend Jon Ward has been bugging me to read it and so far he’s right. I should have read it earlier.
I’m also reading Citizens of London, which is about three influential Americans who lived in London during WWII and helped marshal U.S. support for England.
We are in full marketing season for The Characters of Easter. I’ve been doing quite a few radio and TV interviews. I shot a Characters of Easter special for the Fox Nation streaming channel. This should air mid-March. And I finished a Characters of Easter podcast for Lifeaudio.
I’ve also written a few articles since we last conversed:
“Why Is Our Activism So Mean” for Christian Headlines
“How to Lead Your Church in a Church Averse Culture” for Lifeway Research
Photo credit: nchenga
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