(I’ve been listening to a series of podcasts from Renovatus church which really rock my world. Amazing work digging through these parables to discover the heart of God. Recommend.)
It’s a day in the life of Jesus and his dimwitted disciples (read: us). Jesus kindly gives some pointed, detailed instruction on how to “deal with sin in the church” or so the header of the Bible passage says. First, let’s give a round of applause for Jesus actually being specific and not answering a question with a question, as is his nature.
After the discussion about dealing with the sin, Peter follows up the discussion with this sensible question: So, how many times do we forgive? Like, 7, right? In the context of community and dealing with the workings of people, I have to side with Peter and say it’s a fair question. I mean, aren’t there limits? And we all know of toxic people in our life – what do we do about those? How many times do we let them hurt us before we can wash our hands*?
Jesus replies with, no. Seventy times seven.
Now go ahead and look into the traditional numerology of Jewish history and there’s something there about the meaning of the number 7. Yes yes. And then Jesus tells a story. (Ah, the Jesus we know. Done with the practical, on with the storytelling.)
A king loaned his servant “10,000 bags of gold” (which, in that day, a bag was about 20 years of a day’s labor. That’s a lot of gold). When it was time to repay, the servant didn’t have the cash. (I’m not sure who in this story is surprised by this fact). He fell to his knees and begged for mercy, so the king cancelled the debt.
The first thing the servant does? Finds a guy who owes him $5 from coffee last week and demands repayment. (Ok, not that exact amount. But when we start comparing numbers and putting it into fractions, I think I’m close). His friend couldn’t repay so the servant puts him in jail.
The king finds out and throws a fit. “I cancelled your debt – shouldn’t you cancel yours?” The servant ends up in jail “until he could pay back all he owed.” The parable ends with this: This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or a sister from the heart. (Matthew 18:35).
Obviously, this is about paying it forward. Realizing our own need for mercy so extending it to others. Knowing we’ll never live up to a debt, so extending that same courtesy. Sure, yes.
Let’s talk numbers.
Peter wants to know if 7 is the limit. Jesus says no, more like 70×7. I don’t do the maths so quickly, so even coming up with that number will take a moment. Then, to follow through? It would likely require an Excel spreadsheet with dates in the columns and types of infractions across the top row. I’m surprised Peter didn’t ask, “well, when he gets to 489, do I give him a last warning? Do I let him know ahead of time that this is it?”
Then, the King. He gives 20,000 years worth of labor. To a servant. (Clearly, not high ranking on a credit score). How many days of work is that? Seriously. I’m not even going to attempt that math. If the king actually expected repayment, we have in our hands the most useless timecard because it ain’t gonna happen.
In order to truly get to these maximum numbers, we’re going to have to do some serious counting. Which is what I think Jesus is trying to get across.
Can you imagine what relationships would look like if we simply stopped counting the shortcomings? Can you feel the breath of life in your marriage when you’re unable to say “it’s the third time this week”?
In the heart of his message, Jesus always turns our eyes to bigger things. Missing the forest for the trees. The plank for the speck. We want to get down to the nitty-gritty and count, count, count. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, or so we’ve been told. But those eye and teeth rules were established so that you’d learn to right your wrongs, not so that you could count the wrongs of others.
God isn’t trying to say that we should invite toxic people into our life to make a home – he dealt with that plainly in the section prior to Peter’s question. He’s not saying to give every person unlimited space in your heart when they tear it to pieces with their sin. Jesus says to deal with it lovingly, honestly, and up front.
But when the conversation turns to keeping score, that’s when Jesus shuts it down. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out because of a sin count. If we truly had a grasp on the depths of God’s kingdom, we would know it’s impossible to keep track. So stop trying.
Become a person of mercy. Let forgiveness become your instinct, not your last resort. Jesus ended the parable, “unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” (emphasis mine). It’s not about how many of their sins, its about your posture.
Sure you can call up a debt of $5 because you can count that high. But you’ve got your eyes on your wallet when you do. When you delete the spreadsheets, stop the computations and forget about the opportunity costs, we end up in the economy of God, where things are vast and limitless. What’s $5 in 20000 years of salary? It’s nothing. So stop counting.
“Love is patient, love is kind…. it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:4, 5)
*Look at that doozy of a biblical reference outside of context. Double word score.