How Often Shall I Forgive?

Jesus taught that when a brother sins we are to go and show him his fault in private (Matthew 18:15). Hopefully, he repents and that is the end of the matter. If he does not listen we are to take two or more witnesses who can substantiate the problem (v. 16). Only when he still refuses to listen is the issue to be dealt with more publicly (v. 17). What a wise and beneficial approach this is!

“Then Peter came and said to Him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’” (v. 21).

The Question
Let’s give Peter credit. He was thinking about how to apply Jesus’ teaching to every day situations. That is something we all need to do. Perhaps a previous experience prompted this question.
Where did Peter get the number seven? Luke says Jesus taught seven-fold forgiveness (17:3). Whether that is Luke’s summary of the instruction in our text or something Jesus taught on another occasion is uncertain. Was that number to be taken as a limit? Commentators often cite rabbinic teaching that forgiveness was to be given three times. If Peter was thinking of that, he generously doubled it and added one for good measure. Seven is often a symbol of completeness; perhaps that is why Peter suggested it.

Jesus’ Answer
“Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (v. 22). In other words, “Quit counting. Always be ready to forgive.”

To help us see why, Jesus went on to tell a parable about two debtors. The first one was a man who owed the king 10,000 talents, a preposterously large amount that no one would have the resources to repay. He did the only thing he could: he begged for mercy. The king felt compassion and graciously forgave him. The second debtor was a man who owed the first debtor a reasonable amount, 100 denarii (a denarius was a day’s wage). But that was more than he had, so he, too, pled for mercy. However, the first debtor, who had received such great mercy, now showed no mercy and threw the second debtor in prison. When the king learned what had happened, he mercilessly punished the first debtor, explaining that one who had received such great mercy must extend mercy to others (vv. 23-34).

By way of application, God is the king, we are the first debtor. Our wrongs against Him are far greater than any wrongs others may commit against us. Mercy is our only hope. If we want it, we must learn to give it. Otherwise, the Father will not forgive us (v. 35).

Forgiveness can be difficult, but it is made far easier by simply remembering where we would be without it.

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