Matthew 18:21-22 (VOICE) Peter: 21 Lord, when someone has sinned against me, how many times ought I forgive him? Once? Twice? As many as seven times? Jesus: 22 You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven.
Jesus’ response to Peters question draws on the story of Lamech from Genesis. This is something Jesus and other teachers of his day would do often. They would make a reference to something or someone all of their listeners were familiar with as a sort of shorthand, so everyone would be on the same page and understand the deeper meaning. Jesus is able to do this because at this point in history the biblical stories – although already written down, were shared almost exclusively through the oral tradition. People listened closely and remembered well, in part because there weren’t other options – no one had a copy of the books of Moses on their nightstand or bookshelf.
So, when Jesus answers Peter with the number seventy-seven, Peter and all of those listening connect Jesus words with the story of Lamech. Here at what we read in Genesis 4:24: if Cain is avenged seven times, then surely Lamech must be avenged seventy-seven times!
The number seven has special meaning in scripture, it is sometimes referred to as ‘God’s perfect number’ because its use implies completeness. This is why Peter asks the question the way he does: forgiving someone seven times would be representative of a complete and total forgiveness. In fact, although Jewish tradition valued forgiveness, some teachers allowed only three occasions for deliberate sin, beyond that it was reasonable to doubt the offender’s sincerity.
Peter is asking if he really has to, completely, forgive those that have wronged him. In his mind, he probably thinks he has already offered an extra (possibly unnecessary) level of forgiveness. But Jesus, as he so often does, takes things a step further.
In Genesis, Lamech’s plan is to take vengeance to an almost ridiculous level. The use of the number seven and the multiplication isn’t about completing a mathematical equation, but rather to hyperbolically state the intent. If Lamech were living today, he might simply have said that he would be avenged infinitely, because the meaning is the same.
So, in Jesus response, he reverses this principle of vengeance. Jesus says that it is forgiveness and grace that are to be infinitely applied, not vengeance. Peter asks Jesus to show him the line, to make it clear just how far he had to take the business of forgiveness in order to be righteous and follow in the way of God.
It is a question that all of us relate to, but it is one that Jesus isn’t actually interested in answering. Instead, Jesus wants us to shift our focus and our understanding away from figuring out ‘what’s the least I have to do’ towards living out a life of abundance. Jesus wants us to recognize the abundant blessings we have received from him, including unending grace, and to then share those blessings with others.
Sharing God’s Love,
Prayer: Lord, we so often look for the easy way out and the path of least resistance or the minimum requirement. Help us to turn from that mindset towards an attitude of abundance and grace. Amen.