19 November 2011

Matthew 18:21-35

"Then Peter came and said to Jesus, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times'" (v. 21)


Chapter 18 in Matthew's Gospel explores different ideas about what it means to live in community, how we should deal with each other and our deep responsibility for others. Peter seems to be getting the hang of this. In rabbinic teaching there was a consensus that someone should be forgiven a repeated wrongdoing three times and that on the fourth there would be no forgiveness. Now Peter, beginning to understand the direction that Jesus is going, offers a more generous response than the received teaching: 'How about seven times then Jesus? Is that enough?'. He has perceived the gist but not the radical nature of what Jesus is proposing.

You forgive 77 (or 70 times 7) times Jesus replies - a ridiculous number. In other words, if you're counting the number of times then you're not doing it right.

Jesus then offers a parable that closes this section of teaching. It elaborates on his teaching about forgiveness and also echoes the words of the prayer that he offers earlier in the Gospel: "forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12).

In the Lord's Prayer we are invited to ask God to treat us in the same way we have treated those who have wronged us. But in the case of the parable this dynamic is reversed. Rather than the slave receiving forgiveness because he showed mercy to his debtor he is expected to offer forgiveness because of the mercy he has already received.

Holding these two teachings together it is impossible to say which comes first: God's forgiveness of us or our forgiveness of others. It seems that they are so intimately related as to be inseparable. A life lived within the dynamic of God's love will not keep count of the number of times we need to forgive others, neither will it cling to the number of times we receive forgiveness for our own mistakes. Rather it will be a continual outpouring of loving grace - received and given at the same time, a well that never runs dry.

To Ponder

What do you think is the relationship between the love and mercy we receive and that which we give?

If we are not to count the number of times we forgive someone does that mean we also have to forget what they have done wrong? Why/why not?

Bible notes author

The Revd Ric Stott

Ric Stott is a Methodist minister and works for the Sheffield Methodist District as a Venture FX pioneer exploring new ways of being church, based around the creative arts. He is an artist and art psychotherapist, and is particularly interested in how creativity can help us to explore and develop spirituality, identity and community.