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?’
“If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:24). Jesus turned this vicious saying right around, making it a measure of forgiveness rather than a measure of vengeance. It is unclear whether the number is 77 or 70 x 7, but it hardly matters, since it is not about reckoning. Forgiveness, he is saying, must be beyond reckoning.
The numbers are off the scale in the rest of the passage too. Ten thousand talents would come to about 275,000 years' wages for an average worker. Clearly, repayment is impossible. The point being made is that we are in infinite debt to God and we can never clear that debt by ourselves. We could imagine the older brother in Luke 15 thinking that he could do it by himself. Or the Pharisees with their extreme legalism, attempting to get even with God. But Jesus is expressing the grace of God. The word ‘grace’ means ‘gift’. “If you but knew the gift of God.”
If I have never experienced this gift, I can't believe in it. How could I? If my sense of God is still tangled up in what Meister Eckhart called “the merchandising spirit,” I will not be able to come into my inheritance, the gift of God. I will be measuring everything by my own reckoning; I will be totting up my account, instead of blowing figures away into absurdity, as Jesus did. I will have none of the expansive joy of the Gospel. And so I will be equally calculating in my relationship with other people. I will not know how to give or how to forgive. These two words seem to be twinned in many languages.
There is a legitimate self-interest too in forgiveness. To forgive is to set a prisoner free, only to discover that the prisoner is you. If you refuse to forgive you are making yourself a prisoner of the past. The past is your cradle, not your prison. You cannot half-escape from prison; you have to make a full escape. That means you must forgive “seventy seven times.” If everyone were to follow ‘lex talilonis’ – an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – soon, as Gandhi said, the whole world, including ourselves, would be blind and toothless. Nor should we hold out for apologies: that would be like stealing back into prison.
A few words from the Zen master Joko Beck, “Failing to grasp the importance of forgiveness is always part of any failing relationship and a factor in our anxieties, depressions, and illnesses - in all our troubles. Our failure to know joy is a direct reflection of our inability to forgive…. Non-forgiveness is rooted in our habit of thinking self-centred thoughts. When we believe in such thoughts, they are like a drop of poison in our glass of water. ”
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