It is Peter who opens up his big mouth with this question about limitations for forgiveness. But does he not also speak for the rest of the disciples as well as for you and me? Don’t we all come to a point when we simply have had enough?
Peter is not asking about how to deal with outsiders— sinners in general—but how to deal with the brothers and sisters within the church family. How long do we have to put up with them? How long do I have to put up with you, and you with me? Seventy times seven?
But is this magic multiplied number really the limit?
Actually, this is the same number used in relation to vengeance in the book of Genesis when the Lord proclaims, “Not so, whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” (Genesis 4:15). And later in that chapter Lamech expands this promise: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (verse 24). Seventy-sevenfold was a number beyond comprehension at the time, meaning limitless.
In other words, there is no end to forgiveness. Jesus continues to make his point by telling what might be the most haunting of his parables, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.
It is the story of someone who owed a huge debt, ten thousand talents. One talent was equivalent to more than 15 years of wages. How in the world could such a sum be paid off?
This debtor, mind you, is you and me. We owe God big time. Some artists have tried to show the immensity of our debt by depicting a soul on a scale that has no counterweight. We remain “shackled by a heavy burden,” as the song says.
We do not like to see ourselves that way. In fact, many of us often think that it is God who owes us. Sometimes we even put God on trial, accusing him of all that is wrong in the world.
But the debtor in Jesus’s story knew that he was doomed, that he was to be sold together with wife and children and all his belongings. He fell on his knees and pleaded for mercy. The lord in the story did have pity on him. He did not just give him more time to pay back the debt; he did not simply reduce the amount owed; but he forgave all of it, every penny! Who in the world can afford to do this?
How did the servant in the story feel when all he owed was forgiven, the slate was clean, and he could rise to his feet and walk away a free man? How does someone on death row feel when at the last minute the death sentence is commuted? How did we feel as children when our parents forgave us? Or as adults when our broken marital relationship or betrayed friendship was given a new start through forgiveness?
However, the servant in Jesus’ parable soon picked up his life as if this amazing miracle had not happened. When he saw a fellow servant who owed him a fraction of a fraction of what he owed the lord, he demanded payment and had no compassion whatsoever. In fact, he had him thrown into prison until the debt could be paid.
This makes us feel righteously indignant, upset that someone who was given so much would have no pity on someone who owed a lot less. This may remind us of cases where banks are bailed out but then foreclose on the little guy.
But remember this parable is told to help us see a much deeper dilemma. Each one of us owes God not just for occasional trespassing or little white lies, not even for bigger sins, but we owe God everything. If we look at our lives clearly and begin to see how messed up we are, how overwhelming the debt is, and what God needed to do to redeem it, the immensity of his forgiveness and the price paid blows our minds.
Too often we take God for granted. We go on with business as usual. When we come across someone who owes us, we make the person pay in some way. It is easier to point out the sins of others than to look at our own. It is easier to take on the role of prosecutor or judge than that of the defendant. “Judge not so you will not be judged!”
Why is it that I, saved by grace and grace alone, still have so much trouble forgiving others? Is it because most of our worldly justice systems are based on retribution and vengeance? God’s justice, though, is restoration and salvation from that system.
And yet there is a limit. When the lord in this parable learns about how the man acted toward his fellow servant, he was outraged. He called back the unforgiving servant and reversed everything. “You wicked slave! . . . Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave as I have had mercy on you?” And then he ordered severe punishment for the one whom he had saved from doom before.
That is God’s justice. That is why Christians and non- Christians alike keep wrestling with the question of whether a loving God can be just and a just God be loving.
The implications are sobering: “So my heavenly Father will also do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” This statement can be read as one of the strongest arguments against the claim of many who believe that “once saved, always saved.” Can we indeed lose our own salvation if we refuse to forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart?
Forgiveness from our heart will become easier when we indeed realize just how much we have been forgiven and how much we continue to be in need of forgiveness. We then can begin to see our brothers and sisters, our family members, and even those who have done us terrible wrong with the eyes of Jesus, who on his cross still called out, “Father forgive, for they do not know, what they are doing!” Seventy times seven becomes our way to break with the systems of retribution and vengeance, and instead continue the work of God’s salvation and unending love.
In Les Miserables, the convict Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread and for subsequent attempts to escape from prison. When he arrives at the town of Digne, no one is willing to give him shelter. Desperate, Valjean knocks on the door of the bishop of Digne. Bishop Myriel treats Valjean with kindness, and Valjean repays the bishop by stealing his silverware. When the police arrest Valjean, Myriel covers for him, claiming that the silverware was a gift. This act of mercy changes the criminal, not instantly but profoundly. He is saved by grace. May we, who are being saved by grace day by day, continue to live the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus toward all who knock at our door. So help us God!
Ruth Aukerman is pastor of Glade Valley Church of the Brethren in Walkersville, Md.