In Mt. 18:15-20, Jesus had been teaching His disciples about how to deal with brethren when there is a conflict. Right after this, Peter chimes in with a question, sort of. Peter asks in verse 20, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (NASB). Peter probably thought he was being pretty generous. Wow, seven times! Peter, you’re too kind. How shocked he and the others must have been when Jesus answered, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Now, Jesus did not mean that we should keep a tally sheet and when/if we reach 490 we can then say, “That’s it! I don’t have to forgive you anymore!” He was using a ridiculously large number to indicate that we should not be in the accounting business, but in the forgiving business.
Jesus expands on this in the parallel passage in Luke’s gospel which is found in chapter 17. As if the words in Matthew 18 were not hard enough to live out, Jesus ups the ante on forgiveness. “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.” (Luke 17:3-4). Well, now you are just asking too much, Jesus. Seven times in the same day? That means this person is not showing true repentance and does not deserve forgiveness. AHA! Not so fast. That requires us to know and judge a person’s heart and ONLY God is qualified to do that. Jesus makes this painfully simple: He repents, you forgive. Period. But Jesus, You don’t know how many times he has—NO! He repents, you forgive. This is the command. But Jesus, wouldn’t it be better to teach this person the lesson that—NO! He repents, you forgive. Just do it. But Jesus, what if he doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Does that get me off the hook? This is the part where Jesus would facepalm and shake His head. Don’t miss the point.
The disciples surely didn’t miss the point. Their perfect understanding was proven by what they said next. Jesus had just commanded them (and us) to forgive as many times as someone repents. Their immediate response was, “Increase our faith!” (Luke 17:5). They knew they (and we) were going to need some divine assistance to carry out that command. The Lord’s answer is astounding. He essentially says in verse 6, “Use what you’ve got—it’s enough.” Their faith seemed as small as a mustard seed compared to the gigantic task ahead of them. Jesus told them that if their faith was sincere, then it was big enough. Well, OK Jesus. But if I manage to pull this off, I deserve a medal and a parade! The Lord predicts this attitude in verses 9-10 and strikes down any prideful feelings which may arise. “[The master] does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.’ ” We don’t deserve a round of applause for merely doing what we were commanded. We are not worthy of a spot in Hebrews chapter 11 with the superstars of the faithful. We haven’t elevated ourselves to some lofty position of Christianity. We haven’t gained anything extraordinary. We are still sitting at zero. All we have done is prevented ourselves from falling below the line of obedience and into a deficit. Is forgiving hard? Yes! It may be the one of the hardest commands to obey. What it is not, however, is optional; it is required. So let’s you and I stop treating it like it is optional. Let us not require people to grovel, beg, and crawl for our forgiveness after we think they’ve suffered enough and shown “proper” repentance. God did not require that of us. We may sin seven times a day against Him but He offers mercy every time we ask. His grace is eager, available, and immediate. So should ours be.