11 September 2011

"Then Peter came and said to him, 'Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?' Jesus said to him, 'Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.'" (vv. 21-22)


This passage from Matthew's Gospel records the teachings of Jesus concerning discipline in the churches. There is first an outline of procedures to be followed in cases of wrongdoing, using legal language (verses 15-20), and then this passage addresses the pastoral question of forgiveness. When one of the church family has been accused of wrongdoing against another, procedures for reconciliation and restitution are available, and if that fails, wrongdoers can be excluded from the community. In either case, the problem of forgiveness remains, and Peter asks for further clarification. Jesus responds with an authoritative pronouncement on the question (using the phrase "I tell you", v. 22), backed up with a parable.

Like all parables, this one seems clearly to teach one thing, and then adds an unexpected kicker. So here, Jesus says that just as God shows mercy to the faithful when they sin, so God expects the faithful to show mercy when another within the church family wrongs them. But, and this is the kicker, when people do not show mercy, God will punish them. We expect God to punish wrongdoers, but not to punish the victims who do not or cannot forgive! Yet this is the lesson in this parable. It restates in a different form the verses from the Lord's Prayer: "and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12), which is followed by: "if you do not forgive others, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15). There are legal procedures for restitution and reconciliation, but in the Christian churches, there is an ethical requirement of forgiveness, which, like love, must be limitless (77 times, or perhaps 70 times 7 in verse 22). These procedures are in addition to any secular actions that might be taken, and are binding only within the Christian community. Membership in the community forbids certain kinds of behaviour, and the Church must hold its members to a Christlike standard. Forgiveness is not indifference to wrongdoing, but an attitude of tough love which hopes for repentance and works - tirelessly - for reconciliation and forgiveness.

To Ponder

Do you think this guidance for the Church confuses the attitudes of Christians toward those convicted in civil and criminal cases in society in general?

When you feel guilty for your own wrongdoing, what effect does this reminder of God's forgiving love have on your treatment of yourself?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Susan Graham

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