“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” There’s a great question. There has to be limit, doesn’t there? The line in the sand. The point beyond which you will not go, and be justified in it. Yes, Jesus taught His disciples to pray as though forgiveness depended entirely on you – “forgive us our debts in the same way as we forgive our debtors.” Forgive us just like we forgive others, Lord. But there has to be a limit. The same sin, over and over, again. There must be a limit. The rabbis of Jesus’ day said three times. That was enough. Three times you forgive your brother for the same sin, but the fourth time all bets are off.
Peter goes to the next higher divine number. Seven. Seven times. God’s sabbath number. That should do it. And it seems generous. Once a day for a week. Seven times you are sinned against, seven times forgive. It sound goods, generous, perfect, divine. It outdoes the rabbis by more than double. Jesus has to be pleased with how forgiving Peter is willing to be. Seven times.
No, says Jesus. Not seven times. Kick up another notch. Several notches. Seventy times seven. That’s seven driven to the point of utter completeness seven times over. 490 if you are counting, but who can count that much? You’ll lose count well before that, and that’s the point my friends.
Forgiveness keeps no count. Bookkeeping is the way of the Law, and oh how we love to keep book on the sins against us! We keep our sharp-penciled spreadsheets of all the dastardly deeds done against us. He cheated me, she slandered me, he made a bad face at me. Grudges are nursed, cultivated, walked about on a leash like a pet. “I’m never speaking to him for what he did to me.” “What did he do?” “I don’t remember, but I’m never speaking to him again. That much I do remember.”
Forgiveness keeps no records of wrongs. Freely we are forgiven; freely we forgive. Jesus told a parable, one of those troubling parallel stories designed to shake up the status quo. A king forgave his servant a million dollar debt. It was an absurd amount of money, more than could be repaid in a lifetime. He deserved debtors prison, but instead, by sheer grace, he’s let off scott free.
What does this guy do with his freedom? He goes out and tracks down his fellow servant and grabs him by the throat and demands the 500 bucks he owes him. He’s just been excused a million dollars debt, but here, with his brother, his fellow servant, he demands every penny of a tiny, almost insignificant debt. And he does it all in full view of the other servants, who aren’t too happy with all this and report it to the king. And when the king hears about it, all bets (and debts) are off, and he throws the wicked servant into prison until his debt is paid off. “And that’s how your heavenly Father will deal with you if you don’t forgive your brother from the heart.” “This is the Gospel of the Lord.”
God hates unforgiveness. He really hates it. He’s like the king in the parable when he discovers that His grace is being used to extract the last dime out of a fellow servant. God hates that. Jesus made it a point to expand on that troubling fifth petition of the Lord’s prayer. “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Father in heaven will forgive you; but if you do not forgive, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Don’t turn this into a transaction. It won’t work. Remember the parable. Who forgives first? The king. Who is forgiven first? The servant who owes a million bucks. We won’t get it right until we get this right. God forgives us first, and we are the ones who owe HIm big time. What others do to us, that’s all pocket change, compared to what we do to God. That’s one of the problems of unforgiveness – we deny how much God has forgiven us.
The other problem is that unforgiveness sets us against God. We are running crossed purposes with Him. He’s in the forgiveness business. He sent His Son to die and rise in order to forgive the sin of the world. And when we turn around and hold the world hostage to our unforgiveness, we are denying God’s forgiveness. Worse, we are taking the place of God.
Think about Joseph. Sold by his brothers into slavery. They wanted to kill him at first, but Reuben, the oldest, thought better of it. Instead they tossed him into a dry well and sold him to the first bunch of slave traders that came along. He was hauled off to Egypt where he wound up a servant in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharoah’s officials. After a close brush with Potiphar’s wife, he ended up in an Egyptian prison. But the Lord was with Joseph, and ended up in charge of all the prisoners. And thanks to God’s gift of interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, Joseph was released from prison and put in charge of the whole grain supply of Egypt, so that when a famine hit Israel Joseph “just so happened” to be at the right place and time to help his father, brothers and their families.
He played them along for a while because they didn’t recognize him. And finally there is that tearful reunion where Joseph reveals who he is to his brothers. Then father Jacob dies, and the brothers are afraid, figuring that Joseph is going to finally take revenge on them. They send word to Joseph begging for forgiveness for all they evil they had done to him. And when Joseph heard this, he wept openly, and his brother came and knelt down before him and said, “We’re your servants,” trying to bargain, transact, cut a deal with their brother Joseph.
But Joseph would have none of it. “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. How can I not forgive in the face of the God who forgives? And then comes that memorable line that is engraved in the Scriptures for our learning, and oh how we need to hear this over and over again. “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” You meant it for evil; God used it for good.
Dare we believe this, dear brothers and sisters in Christ? Dare we believe this, that the evil the world throws at us, the evil our friends and family throw at us, the evil our very brothers do against us, that God will take it up in His own hands and redirect it for good? Dare we believe such things?
Look to the cross of Jesus. Men meant it for evil. They wanted to kill the Son of God, get rid of Him for good, silence Him, destroy Him. They lied and connived and miscarried justice to get Him nailed to a Roman cross. It was evil compounded on evil. And God used it for good – your salvation, my salvation, the salvation of the world.
Helmut Thielicke was a German Lutheran pastor who served in Stuttgart during WW II. His congregation met amidst the sound of air raid sirens and bombs. They went from a church to a parish hall auditorium as their church was bombed to ruins. He writes:
“We therefore must not simply say: “God” sends death, “God” sends cancer, “God” sends multiple sclerosis. The existence of these powers is radically contrary to God’s plan of salvation. He allow it, and He undoubtedly is thinking His own higher thoughts when He does so. And even we men, small and sinful as we are , are sometimes able to grasp in our thought why God must perform this “alien” work, why he goes along with the world’s judgment upon itself, and why He delivers us to it.
But then there is this other fact which is just as true – the totally new fact, which no man could ever discover by himself. Everything God permits the dark powers to do must first pass in review before Him. Everything is examined and censored by His fatherly eye to see whether it will really work “for good with those who love Him.” Everything must first pass by him, every bomb that my strike me, every shell-splinter that ay take my dearest away from me, every intrigue or chicanery that men may inflict upon me.
And since it must first pass by Him before it can strike me, there happens what always happens when a thing or a person is looked upon by the eye of God: a great transformation takes place: Sufferings become trials which are meant to be endured in order that I may be purged and refined like the precious metal of gold. The great time of terror, in which the furies o man’s brutality, blindness, and hubris are unleashed, become times of visitation. Death, the “last enemy” becomes the “desire to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23). The dreadful valleys of the shadow which I must traverse become the places where I learn to know the Good Shepherd and test his rod and staff. The anxieties that torment me as I face the insecurity of my existence and the dark curtain of the future become the raw material which I let God build my trust and my faith. “Crosses lift their arms above every pain.”
It is as if God intercepts these originally evil and disastrous missiles of fate, catches them in his fatherly arms, and sends them in the direction he wants them to go for the benefit of His children.
So everything is transformed for those who are His children, for those who have seen the Father in Jesus’ life and death, and never again will let Him go. then it comes from HIs hands; in any case it must go through HIs hands. And we all know what a tremendous comfort it is to be able to accept something from the hand of God.” (Our Heavenly Father, pp. 27-28)
You meant it for evil; God has used it for good. That’s faith talk. God intercepts the missiles intended for our destruction and redirects them for our good. That’s faith in Jesus talk. It all goes through the cross of Jesus, through His crucified Body, through His shed Blood. God has made peace with the world, and with you, His baptized child. How can we not forgive? How can we not let go and leave it be? How can we not die to all the evil done against us, knowing, believing that God in Jesus has worked it for your good. Forgive the brother, the sister, the neighbor, the enemy. Not just three times or seven times but seventy times seven, and you will know the freedom that comes with being the children of God.
In the name of Jesus,