Seventy Times Seven: The Forgiveness Dilemma

Forgiving someone who wronged you is one of the hardest human virtues to consistently accomplish. Let’s face it, at our core, we’re all extremely petty people. We relish the idea of “getting back” or “getting even” far more than we do that of “wiping the slate clean”. And we feel like we gain far more gratification by one-upping our neighbor than by simply letting go of the matter. It’s a struggle. It’s something we all know we should be doing if we want to be a “good person”, but forgiving someone? Uggggggggh.

So it should come as no surprise that Jesus is specifically asked about it and that it’s none other than “I have to hop around on one leg because my other foot is permanently in my mouth” Peter who asks about it. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

This is great, because Jesus is right in the middle of having a conversation about how to deal with someone who’s wronged you. Speak to them alone, then with a few close friends in the room, then take it before the assembly- (Note: Jesus is speaking before the institutional church is established so don’t get your translations twisted here. He’s telling you to take it to trusted local authorities. This may be spiritual leaders, but it may not be.)

And here’s where Peter raises his hand and says, “Yeah, but, I mean… at some point I can stop forgiving my brother right? Clearly he’s not learned anything if he keeps wronging me.”

I love the wording used because Jesus is speaking generically in his use of “brother” as that of a fellow kinsman, countryman, perhaps a fellow believer (though again, these teachings were given pre-traditional “Christians” were a thing). Peter looks over at Andrew and say, “Yeah… but what do I do about my actual brother?”

This is totally a thing that we would do.

And he thinks he’s being pretty good and looking all spiffy with the “seven times” thing. But Jesus just looks at him with a “You say seven? I say seventy times seven.”

Here’s where lots of scholars and faux-scholars have fought over in the centuries since. What’s the meaning of the numbers?

Some translations use “seventy times seven”, or 490. Some say seventy seven. Both sets, it’s often described to infer that Jesus is essentially invoking what the modern world would refer to as “infinity”. Forgive your brother an infinite number of times. And sure, that’s a nice sentiment. But I don’t think that’s really the full extent of what he’s saying here.

Other scholars have pointed out the importance of the number 7 in Hebrew traditions as the number of completion or perfection. It’s even worth noting that according to many Messianic Jewish rabbis:

“490 is the numerical value of the biblical Hebrew word “tamim” which means to “complete,” “perfect,” or “finished.”

A person who can’t forgive, in their estimation, can never be “perfect”. And here’s where I think we’re finally getting somewhere. That same word meaning complete or perfect- in both Hebrew and Greek- also means mature.

That same number 7 that Peter uses to sneakily imply that he’s embracing maturity and perfection by forgiving at least seven times Jesus then turns around on him and essentially says, “A truly mature person wouldn’t be asking this question.”

Here’s what I really think Jesus is trying to convey to Peter in this exchange. If you’ve truly forgiven someone, you’ll stop counting. The fact that you’re keeping count says that your attempt at forgiveness has fallen short.

I think this is something we can all identify with. Especially those of us who struggle mightily with bitterness, resentment, and holding grudges. Because sometimes we say the right things. We say “I forgive you” or will even convince ourselves we’ve forgiven someone who didn’t bother asking forgiveness. But in reality, we’ve filed it away somewhere, only to pull it out and use it against them the moment they wrong us one too many times. And you know you will. It’s what we’re good at, right? It’s the very thing that drives us to “get even” in the first place.

Now, there are others out there who are thinking this is no problem whatsoever. Just let it slide right off and forget about it. Someone wrongs you, and you say “not a big deal”. To you, Jesus is saying, “you still need to deal with this. There’s a way to properly deal with someone who treats you poorly. And this is not the way.” Inevitably one of two things is going to happen in this situation.

One, the rage monster will at some point be released and all hell will break loose with the fury of a thousand burning suns- likely directed at someone who very certainly does not deserve the wrath you are pouring out upon them. Or two, you will continue to diminish your value, your importance, and your own emotional well-being to the point where you believe the lie that you’re less of a person than anyone else around you and therefore very possibly deserve the way that you’re being treated. In case you’re uncertain- both of those situations are horrrrrrrible and should be avoided at all cost.

So please. When someone wrongs you- yes, even your biological siblings- go through the process of actually dealing with it. Be hurt. Address it. Bring others into the conversation. Allow authority figures to speak into the process. And then when all is said and done, forgive them and move on. You know it won’t be long before you’ll be the one asking for forgiveness. And isn’t it nice to believe that no one is keeping score anymore?

Because remember, If you’re still counting, it’s not true forgiveness.

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