The Disciples were always quarrelling like the sibling rivalry we can all remember from our childhood. And as we know Peter, who was so hot headed and impetuous must have owed many apologies to various people. And so, it is surprising that he is the one who is asking about how many times he must forgive. Perhaps he thought that he was being generous offering to forgive seven times. After all, in the Rabbinic tradition scholars, such as Rabbi Jose ben Hanina said,
‘He who begs forgiveness from his neighbour must do so no more than three times.’
And Rabbi Jose ben Jehuda said,
‘If a man commits an offence once, they forgive him, if he commits an offence a second time, they forgive him; if he commits an offence a third time, they forgive him; the fourth time, they do not forgive him.’
The biblical proof for this comes from Amos, chapters 1:3, 6, 9. 11 and 13, and 2;1, 4, and 6.
And so Peter thought he was going the extra mile by doubling the Rabbinic teaching and adding one more for good measure.
You can imagine the pride and self-satisfaction that Peter was awarding himself, and expected to be warmly commended by Jesus for his grace.
But Jesus’ answer that he should forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven. And, unless he were to keep a record of wrongs against him, it would be impossible to remember 70 times 7, which is 490.
Jesus was meaning that he must forgive into infinity and never keep a count of wrongs done against him.
To illustrate his point, in Matthew 18:21ff Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It teaches the lesson which runs through much of Matthew, all the New Testament that we must forgive, because we have been forgiven much. Those who cannot forgive others cannot hope that God will forgive them. For God, has forgiven us for so much more than anything we might find to forgive in other people.
‘Blessed are the Merciful, for they will receive mercy.’
Much of the teaching of the Sermon on The Mount is an expansion of the Beatitudes, which is why in Matthew 6:14, Jesus’ teaching about prayer reinforces what he said, by saying,
‘Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors’, or ‘Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.’
James also repeats this teaching when he says in Chapter 2:13 of his letter, ‘For judgement will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy.’ Therefore, divine and human forgiveness go hand in hand.
William Barclay also reminds us that one of the great points of this Parable is the contrast between the two debts. The first servant owed his master over 10,000 talents – and a talent was equivalent to over 15 years’ wages. Apparently, the total budget of Idumea, Judea and Samaria was only 600 talents, and the total revenue of Galilee was 300 talents, so the debt of this servant was comparable to what the corrupt bankers owed us after the Credit Crash. And, against this background his debt was staggering and this is what he was forgiven.
However, the debt which a fellow servant owed him was tiny in comparison. It was only 100 denarii, and a denarius was a usual day’s wage for a working man.
The biblical scholar A. R. S. Kennedy draws a vivid picture to contrast the size of the debts which were owed: “Suppose they were paid in small coins, (he suggested sixpences, or five pence pieces or US dimes). The 100 denarii debt could have been carried in one pocket. The 10000 talents would have taken an army of about 8600 carriers to carry it, each with a sack of coins weighing 60 pounds. And they form up at a distance of a yard apart, in a line five miles long. The contrast between these debts is staggering. And the point is that nothing that others can do to us can compare to the suffering Jesus endured on the cross on our behalf. And if, God can forgive us the debt we owe him, for what was done on the cross for us, then we must forgive our neighbours the debts they owe to us.
Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
By the same token, another illustration is offered by Jesus, when teaching about judging others.
And of course, when it comes to God’s mercy, we can only depend on His grace when we need it. American bible teacher, writer and broadcaster says,
“Justice is for those who deserve it, mercy is for those who don’t.”
In the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman, she cries out to him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession.”
At first Jesus did not answer, but his Disciples urged him to send her away.
So, he replied, “I was sent only to the Lost Sheep of Israel.”
Again the woman pleaded, this time, on her knees, “Lord, help me!”
He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread, and toss it to their dogs.”
“Yes Lord”, she said, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus Answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request has been granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour.
So, why did Jesus relent, and why was the woman’s daughter healed?
Because of faith. We are saved by faith, not by lineage, race, or works, or by the sacrifices which were thought to be the way to faith under the old covenant of the law, between the children of Israel and God. The new covenant, Jesus was bringing was about the mercy God had for his people, which through Jesus he was bringing, which is why people were healed, and fed, and forgiven and accepted.
For God desires mercy, not sacrifice.
In Matthew 12 we remember how Jesus walked through the cornfields on the Sabbath and because his disciples were hungry, they picked ears of corn to eat. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.
“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. . . . I tell you that one greater than the Temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent? For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, and a man with a shrivelled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”
And Jesus said to them,
“If any of you has a sheep, and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and take it out? How much more valuable is the man than the sheep! Therefore, it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”
Then he said to the man, stretch out your hand.” So, he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other.”
Perhaps you can think of laws or rules, which even today seem unjust, and how God wants us show mercy.
On Radio 4, I heard of how A. L. Kennedy on Desert Island Discs spoke of her love for reading and libraries, and as she discovered the magic of books and stories, she shared how even the library could be place of mercy over judgement when the librarian turned a blind eye to the vagrant who slept away the afternoons in its warmth and safety.
Maybe you’ve been on a bus or behind someone in the queue when they realised that they don’t have enough for the fare. It would be easy for the driver to tell them to step aside, and deny them access, but then someone stepped forward with the difference that it takes to pay their fare to get them home. That is mercy in action. Sometimes it’s known as ‘paying it forward’, because somebody once did something for them in their time of need.
And Jesus would say, go and do likewise.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.”Amen.