Summary: Peter’s question about how often to forgive allows Jesus to answer a different question: what is forgiveness.
What is forgiveness?
As I’m sure most of you have noticed, in our worship here we recite the Lord’s prayer twice during our worship. In the history of Christian worship this is a fairly low number of times to use the Lord’s prayer. When Thomas Cranmer revised the Sarum Mass in order to give us the first English Prayer Book, the worship service he started with had the Lord’s Prayer scattered throughout it at least seven times. We say it twice, because our worship service is a combination of two Prayer Book services – Morning or Evening Prayer, which is the section of the service we’re in right now, and then the Holy Eucharist, which begins with the offering.
Today, I want to direct your attention to a line in the Lord’s Prayer which contains an idea which our Lord expounded in today’s gospel lesson. I’m referring to the line in the Lord’s Prayer which says “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In other versions of the Lord’s prayer, this line reads “for give us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Both versions of this prayer point to valid and accurate notions about forgiveness. Forgiving a trespass or a sin is very much the same as forgiving a debt that is owed. One person has acted in a wrong way, and another person is damaged by it. The one suffering the damage is like a creditor – he rightly has something coming to him, and the one who did the wrong is the one who owes something to the one whom he has wronged.
You recall last week we looked at Jesus teaching on how to deal with a brother who has sinned against us. What Jesus says we are to do is to go to the brother who has wronged us, go to him privately, alone, and seek a reconciliation. If the one who has wronged us will not be reconciled to us, then Jesus instructs that an ever widening circle of admonition be invoked, so as to increase the likelihood that the errant brother will repent.
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus continues to deal with how these ruptures in Christian fellowship are to be handled by Christians, and the pretext of his instruction is a question by the Apostle Peter:
21 Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Many students of this passage suggest that Peter’s question contained more than a little self-congratulation. It would suggest that Peter was willing to forgive his brother seven times, and he is asking the Lord if this is satisfactory. In the context of first century Jewish spirituality, Peter’s suggestion here is extravagantly generous. The Rabbis, taking their cue from the Prophet Amos in chapter 1 and verse 6, taught that one should forgive up to three times, but not on the fourth. So, when Peter inquires about forgiving up to seven times, he is really pushing the limits of what anyone would consider reasonable.
Jesus’ answer, of course, is wildly extravagant: not seven times, but seventy times seven times. The point of this is not to set up some sort of spiritual accounting practice, where we carefully count the number of times we forgive a brother, waiting for the moment when we have forgiven him exactly 490 times. Jesus is simply using the common rabbinical teaching method of exaggeration. His point is that you keep on forgiving, and never stop. And then he gives one of the more chilling parables to come from his lips.
This parable, as I’m sure you have noted, puts into story form what we pray twice in our worship services. “Forgive us as we forgive others.” Jesus’ parable explains why we should forgive others – because we ourselves have first been forgiven. And Jesus also explains what are the consequences of not forgiving others – our own sins will not be forgiven.
And, so this parable explains that tiny word “as” in the Lord’s Prayer: forgive us as we forgive others, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. That word “as” does not mean “because.” We are NOT praying, “Lord, forgive us BECAUSE we forgive others.” The Lord’s forgiveness of our sins does not originate as a response to us: He does NOT look down from heaven and say, “My, my, look at how they’re forgiving one another. I’ll reward them by forgiving them their debt to me.” That is EXACTLY what is NOT going on in the courts of heaven.
INSTEAD, the parable shows us what goes on in the courts of heaven. God the Father freely and graciously forgives those who own him a debt wildly beyond their ability to pay. As a consequence of this, he expects that the grace he extends to debtors will be further extended by those forgiven debtors to those who are indebted to the ones whose debts are forgiven. Consider it a variation on the Golden Rule: God wants us to do to others as He has done to us.