First read: Matthew 18:21-35
Simon Sez… lessons from the life of Peter
“How many times shall I forgive?’
This morning as we continue with this series called “Simon Sez… lessons from the life of Peter,” I think that we shall find that Simon Peter is taking us into some rather deep things. Indeed, there are few things in our lives that impact us as much as the issue of forgiveness. Many of us have been through it – what a lack of forgiveness does – how it breaks up marriages – how it causes rifts in families – how it plays havoc with relationships at work – wherever you look it seems as though the issue of forgiveness is an important one.
Simon here – rather brashly – Peter often seems to boldly go where no one else would normally go – begins to ask a question that most of us would probably hold back and not ask. But it is a good question. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? – Up to seven times?”
Now we might find it interesting that Peter puts a limit on forgiveness – he was willing to forgive seven times – in fact, Peter seemed rather excited about the concept of only forgiving seven times. Yet it seems as if Peter’s heart was in the right place – although we may not understand it. The Jewish teaching of his day – the tradition – was that you would forgive another three times – they may offend you – they may sin against you – they may do whatever to you – three times and you are to forgive them. But on the fourth time – the tradition was that it was no longer necessary to forgive. If anything it was punishment that was to come after the fourth offense – after granting forgiveness for the first three offenses.
Peter no doubt thought he was doing pretty well – he was going much farther than three – he went all the way to seven – he took that three and doubled it and then threw in an extra one just for good measure. And I think he was probably feeling pretty good about himself and thus he says to Jesus in effect, “Well, how about it Lord? How many times should I forgive my brother – maybe up to – seven times?” Perhaps he was even expecting that Jesus would come over and give him a pat on the back – “that’s pretty good Peter – you’ve certainly got the concept of forgiveness.”
But instead – and here I picture Jesus walking over and putting his arm around Peter – holding him close – and looking him in the eye and saying – “But instead of seven times – how about seventy-seven times?” The translation here is a little confusing – it could mean a couple of different things – 77 times or perhaps even 7 times 70 times – whichever – it is a whole lot more than Peter suggested – isn’t it? Peter thought that forgiving seven times was more than sufficient.
Peter probably backed up a step or two – whoa – after all he could count to seven on his hands – but 77 times – he was going to run out of fingers and toes – and probably run out of memory to keep track of it. And if it meant 7 times 70 – that would even be worse – he would have to be able to use multiplication to keep track of this one. Most of us can keep track of things up to seven – eight – nine – maybe ten times. But beyond that we usually start to loose count (just ask any golfer!!!). But perhaps that is the concept here – what Jesus is trying to tell us is that it is not such a bad thing to lose track of offenses.
Let’s take a moment and look a little deeper at this thing called forgiveness.
The first thing we need to do to properly understand forgiveness – is to put forgiveness into its proper perspective. We have a tendency to think that the “debts” owed to us in human relationships – that the “wrongs” done to us by somebody else – are probably the worse kind of thing that anybody could possibly do to anybody else – in all of this world. In other words – we have a tendency – when we are wronged – to react as if this must be the worse wrong that has ever taken place in all the history of the world. We may not think it intellectually – or even declare such a thought verbally – but there are many times where we surely react as if it is. No doubt that is probably the way that Peter felt – and thus he decided to be magnanimous and forgive up to seven times all the terrible things done unto him.
Jesus then helps Peter – and us – to put it all into proper perspective – as he tells what we call the parable of the unforgiving servant. It is about a servant who owed his master 10,000 talents – while he, the servant, was owed by another only 100 denarii. Now this only makes sense to us if we understand the value of a talent and a denarii. Actually the debt of 10,000 talents is about 500,000 times the debt of 100 denarii. 500,000 times – half a million times larger is the debt that the servant owes to the Master compared to the debt owed to him by the other servant. 10,000 talents was an incredible debt. The region of Galilee was a relatively wealthy province in Jesus day – yet the total annual tax revenue of the whole province of Galilee was only about 300 talents. The debt that the servant owed his Master was greater than a king’s ransom – it was beyond imagination.
Imagine that you are the man who owes 100 denarii. A.R.S. Kennedy did the math and came to the conclusion that this is about the number of sixpence (worth about 6 cents) that a man could put in one pocket. So picture yourself with a pocket hanging inside out.
Now let’s compare this with what it would take to get 10,000 talents. This would require quite a few additional folks – each one standing about an arm length a part. These additional helpers would each be holding a 60 pound sack filled with sixpence. How many people would there be in this line of “sack” holders? Nearly 9000 – lined up an arm length apart – each holding a 60 pound bag of sixpence. This is the debt that the servant owed to the Master, while an empty pocket represents the debt owed servant to servant.
The point is that there is absolutely nothing that another person can do to us – that can in anyway compare – with what we have done to God in our sin – and if God has forgiven us the debt that seems to go on forever – then shouldn’t we be able to forgive those little debts that we owe to each other. We have – in Jesus Christ – been forgiven a debt that is beyond all paying – for our sin brought about the death of God’s own son. We need to put this in perspective – we must forgive others as God has forgiven us.
This leads us then to our second thought – and that is this – that forgiveness is not an option for the Christian. Christ didn’t look at Peter and say, “Well Peter, let us discuss your question and seem if we can come to some sort of reasonable agreement – a consensus between us – we can bring in the other disciples and get their input – we’ll put our heads together – and do some brainstorming – and see what number we come up with.”
No – he looked at him and said, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus Christ tells us to forgive – it is a part of following him. In fact – he goes on later to tell us that we cannot truly enjoy the state of forgiveness that He will bring to us—unless we also forgive others. Paul writing to the Colossians in the 3 chapter said to them (vs 13) “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”
Every time you go to forgive – think about the fact that you are supposed to forgive as the Lord forgave you – and think about the length and depth and breadth of your debt to him.
Next let’s look at one situation where this talk of forgiveness can be particularly difficult for some people – it is in the realm of forgiving themselves. Some of us have a very, very difficult time – forgiving ourselves.
Lloyd Ogilvie, who is Presbyterian pastor – for many years at the First Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, PA, then at Hollywood Presbyterian church in CA, and finally serving as the chaplain of the US Senate, has written about this inability to forgive ourselves.
He said, “A deep-seated pride is often the cause (of our inability to forgive ourselves). We play God when we refuse to forgive ourselves as much as he does. We fear losing control over our own lives. Holding ourselves in the contempt of unforgiving self-negation is our way of keeping control. We become brooders, down on ourselves. And eventually we get down on others. Our attitudes become cold and cautious. A fracture in our relationship with the Lord results and deepens until our prayers are ineffective, the joy of living drains away, and we become critical, negative people. Taking up our cross and denying ourselves means the total reorientation of life with the self no longer at the center. We give up our rights to run our own lives. That includes the right to be the imperious judge of our own worth. Nothing negates our calling to be forgetful forgivers more than being locked on the dead-center of withholding forgiveness from ourselves. We sidestep the meaning of Jesus’ cross and are immobilized in taking up our own cross and following him. We evade responsibility by rendering ourselves as incapable of being forgiven. It is like getting sick to get out of an obligation. Sometimes the decision to be sick is so subtle that we don’t even know that we’ve done it. People are sympathetic and let us off the hook. In the same way we compensate for ourselves by condemning ourselves. How could God expect any courageous loving and forgiving from a person like us? With all we’ve done and been, what right do we have to offer forgiveness to others? And yet, the Lord never gives up! He comes to us relentlessly with daily offers for us to deny our right to be our own gods, accept him as Lord of our lives, allow him to be our judge and crucified forgiver. Taking up our cross always spell crucifixion of ourselves. Our Calvary is to die to self-control. And that includes angry judgements of ourselves and others manifested in an unwillingness to forget what the Lord has forgiven.”
Finally we need to consider the need not simply to forgive – but also to forget. When you count to seven you can still remember – but when you get to 70 and beyond it is difficult to remember all the details – and it stands as a reminder that we need to forget. We need to let the memory be cleansed. Paul in his letter to the Colossians challenged them to “nail their sins to the Cross.” In the ancient Greek world – a nail driven through a charge list against a person and then displayed publicly on a board or on a tree meant exoneration for the person who was charged. If you were going to forgive someone a debt – these charges – you took a nail and hung the list on it for public display – and it meant that it is all forgiven – and this is what is forgiven – that which is on display nailed to the tree.
We are called to nail our sins – and those nasty memories – to the tree as well – for when we do – the same love that was exposed on Calvary can flood the rivers of our memories with fresh waters – washing away the crud that has collected there – all those moments – those memories that we have carefully collected and harbored – and held onto – these memories that are holding us back from truly forgiving and being forgiven.
Forgetful forgiving is what Jesus taught Simon that day – perhaps it is what many of us also need to learn – if we are to truly grow in our walk with Christ – and to experience the fullness – and the joy of His Kingdom.