Religious people tend to want others to tell them what to do. They prefer not to engage in the rigorous process of wrestling with conflicting ideas in order to arrive at a conclusion that makes sense. We want everything in black and white; no grey, no exceptions.

But life is sometimes more nuanced than that. In Matthew 18, Jesus was teaching a four-part series on forgiveness when Peter raised his hand: “How many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me?”

Peter wanted Jesus to issue a simple ruling, a universal law that applied to every situation with no exception. Once Jesus gave him that precise number, he would know exactly where he stood with regard to all the people who had sinned against him. “Okay, Andrew, this is your sixth time!” Can you hear Peter saying that to his brother?

To help matters, Peter even suggested a number: “Up to seven times?” He thought he was being extremely magnanimous since the Rabbis only required up to three times. Jesus Himself had hinted at the number seven earlier, though he was referring to up to seven times in ONE day. As soon as Peter rolled out the number 7, I imagine him looking around to see the reaction on the other disciples’ faces, confirming what he thought in his mind about himself: “He is a jolly good fellow!”

But Jesus wasn’t impressed. He said, “Not seven, seventy times seven” (or seventy seven, depending on which manuscript tradition you adopt). Either way, the point Jesus was making was: “Forgiveness ought to be offered as often as the offender asks for it.”

The Rabbis said, “Three strikes and he’s out.” Peter said, “Seven strikes and he’s out.” Jesus said, “He’s never out and you are never justified not to forgive.” And that is the point of this passage.

Anticipating objections, Jesus goes on to tell the story of the unmerciful servant. There is a scoundrel in that story, namely, the guy who was forgiven a debt of millions who then turns around and refuses to forgive a debt of only hundreds. If you came across that fellow, you would want to strangle him. Okay, maybe you would just want to call him a jerk.

Right. Now get this: Every time we act in an unforgiving manner, we are like the jerk in the story. Why? Because the debt we owe God is so ridiculously gigantic that it makes the debt others owe us like peanuts in comparison. So my obligation to forgive others should not be in proportion to the offense they brought me but in proportion to the offense I brought God.

And that is why no number in the mathematical universe is big enough to put a cap on the times I ought to forgive those who offend me. My offense against God would have landed me in hell, but His forgiveness in Christ changed my zip code in the afterlife. How dare I not forgive others?

Pastor Ivanildo C. Trindade

Lead Pastor, Grace Church, Lititz, PA