When Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” do you suppose Peter was asking just for information? Do you suppose that Peter was asking for a friend? Do you suppose that Peter was asking a theoretical “what if” question about forgiveness? I do not believe that Peter had just been wondering about this and then got up his nerve to ask Jesus. No, I wonder if something had just happened – Peter had been wounded by the words or actions of another, a repeated wound, and Peter had enough of it. He was not looking for an answer to forgive but a reason not to forgive.
Certainly you might expect there to be situations, more often than not, where it is not simply justifiable but actually the godly thing to withhold forgiveness. Lord knows, people say they are sorry but we know they are not. We can pretty much count on them doing the same sin against us again. People are quick to ask for forgiveness but slow to show signs of change. And we all know that real remorse means you stop doing the sin, right? I thoroughly get where Peter is coming from and so do you. There has to be a time when you draw the line and not because you are mean or self-righteous or anything. No, it is because the sinner has sinned one too many times and doesn’t seem inclined to take it seriously or really try to stop. Peter was expecting Jesus to admit that there is a time to draw the line and stop forgiving.
But Jesus did just the opposite. Jesus did not simply move the limit higher, He made it as if there was no limit. For Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” You count it up and see how hard it would be to crunch those numbers and keep tally of the times you have forgiven. In fact, Jesus is saying to stop keeping score. Forgiveness is not the reward for those who have done something to deserve a second chance, forgiveness is mercy for those who should get no more chances at all. Now you can argue with me but you are really arguing with Jesus. And if you think you can argue Jesus out of His answer, well, you are a bit bolder than I am.
What Jesus says is entirely impractical, unreasonable, and a step too far. But this is coming from the one who while we were still enemies and sinners marked for death, became flesh, lived righteously, and died obediently for unworthy sinners.
We are always looking for reasons why we should forgive but our Lord cannot find a reason not to forgive. Even those who put Him on the cross were not singled our for retribution but received the undeserved pardon of Christ’s word from the cross: Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. You and I are always looking for reasons not to forgive and we have plenty of them, good and reasonable and legitimate reasons why we should not forgive a cheating husband or wife, a son or daughter living a ruinous life, the one whose gun killed our innocent loved one, or the one whose drunken escapade ended the life of a family member. The list goes on why we should not forgive and why it is perfectly understandable why we do not want to forgive. The problem is that there is no Biblical reason for it.
Jesus might have explained it to Peter: “Peter, we are, after all, talking about your brother in Christ, someone near and dear to you. Do you want to burn your bridges? After all, isn’t the Church a Kingdom of forgiveness for sinners?” But Jesus does not explain Himself or even explain why to forgive. He simply lays it out. Do the math, Peter. As often as your brother sins against you and asks you to forgive him, that is what you do. Righteous anger or not, big sin or small, half-hearted repentance or full, God’s answer to sin is forgiveness and the answer we ought to have for each other is the same – forgiveness as often as it needs to be given.
The truth is we live in a hard age. In politics and religion, work and play, we are divided and bitter. We actually enjoy living with outrage and we get our kicks off justifying why we cannot forgive or work together. It infects the family and the Church. People walk out that door every week unsure whether they will return because they are angry that someone said something wrong or did not say something right to them. We look for a reason to stop forgiving but God is always looking the angles so that forgiveness keeps on giving. It is the triumph not of reason or justice or relationship but of mercy and mercy alone.
Long ago brothers ganged up against the brother whom they thought was being treated differently. They watched as their father gave him gifts they did not receive and allowed him freedom from his chores that they did not get. Their brother was probably a brat. After a while, they had enough. They came up with a plan to kill him or at least to make him go away for good. And it worked. Except that every day their sin haunted them in the sorrowful face of their father.
You and I would think the brother justified in getting revenge upon them for selling him into slavery and depriving him of his father and family. Even Joseph had thought about what he might do if he ever had the chance. And when the chance came, God turned Joseph’s heart. Though they deserved nothing of his kindness, he forgave them purely out of mercy and not because of anything in them. Forgiveness is never theoretical. It lives in the reality of bitterness and anger and dispute and hate and self-righteousness. We do not place forgiveness there but God does and it is the only reason why we are saved.
If you are going to draw the line with forgiveness, you better to be ready for God to draw the line in front of you. For the measure that you give, you shall receive. Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. No, there is no logic or justice to it all. There is only mercy. Only the cross. Only the Savior. God is not giving our explanations or justifications or reasons. God is only giving out mercy. And those who know this mercy, well, they live by it too. We do not walk together because we agree or all get along or never argue. We walk together because God has forgiven us and that just about says it all. As many times as you have sinned against Him, He has forgiven you. This is not about reason and not about who deserves it. It is about one thing only. Mercy. And the face of mercy is Jesus. Amen.