A reading from the gospel according to Matthew,
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.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
Have you ever heard the expression: how long is a piece of string? Think about it for a moment. People might say “How long is a piece of string?” when someone asks: how long will I be waiting for the Lanark to Glasgow Train; or how long it will take to get through to that call centre. “How long is a piece of string?” It could be limitless, you could be waiting an awfully long boring time.
Peter comes to Jesus and says if a member of the church. Not just anyone, but a member of the church sin against me: how often should I forgive. Peter begins by starting a negotiation with Jesus. 7 sounds like a good number, we’ll try forgiving 7 sins for a start. A bit more generous than forgiving just one sin, but not too many. 10 would be a bit much, 7 makes us spiritual enough. We’ll go with 7 and see what Jesus says. He says 77 times you should forgive. But before you start doing the maths and create score cards for those seated next to you in the pews or at home, wait a second. This translation has it as 77 times; but other bibles say 70 multiplied by 7 which adds up to no less than 490 times. But, wait, theres’ more. In the Jewish imagination the number 7 and the number 490 have special significance too, they are the numbers which point towards completion, perfection and even infinitude. In other words, when Peter asks how many times should I forgive someone, Jesus asks him: How long is a piece of string?
The reason Jesus confronts Peter with this answer is because he can see Peter has made an all too human error. Peter assumes that there are limits to the love and the forgiveness of God in the same way that human beings tend to limit their love and their forgiveness. Added to this is the fact that Peter isn’t asking how many times should any person forgive another person, but how many times should members of the church forgive each other. Even though Peter is arguably the head of the early church – the first to receive and recognize the good and forgiving news of Jesus, it hasn’t filtered through yet to how he thinks about and acts towards his fellow believers. He’s still keeping scorecards and keeping people at a safe emotional and spiritual distance, limiting how vulnerable he can be with his fellow Christ followers and putting limits on his willingness to forgive.
But of course when Peter got forgiveness for his sins, when Peter experienced the love of God for himself, that love did not count the number of faults or mistakes Peter had made or would make in the future. God’s love was not limited to loving only parts of Peter and not others. God did not show Peter that he would leave him if he messed up later and got a bad scorecard. God’s love and forgiveness as experienced by each and every Christian is not limited by bad behaviour or good behaviour. It isn’t limited to the past and won’t leave us in the future either now or beyond death. Peter, Christian, Christ Church Lanark, just as God has poured out unlimited love and forgiveness on you, do likewise to those around you. Treat others as God has treated you, not if they sin against you but when they sin against you – and they will. And you will sin against them too. When it happens, how many times should you forgive? As Jesus might say if he was speaking in today’s language: How long is a piece of string.
Prayer of Examination
Explore your week, within your Father’s company, with Jesus by your side and the Holy Spirit within your very soul. Ask God to guide you through each day, showing you where he has been acting in love: to guide, encourage, teach and challenge you in daily life.
Worry out loud to God about whatever’s troubling you most today, asking him to bring peace where it seems most impossible to grasp hold of. Know that God has shared your distress and accompanied you, even when it’s been difficult to see how.
Name one person to God that you’re concerned for, praying for their needs to be met in the way that only God can. Entrusting their situation to his loving care.
Remember one enjoyable experience or good encounter you had with someone this week. Focus on one, and give simply give thanks to the God who gives us all good things to enjoy.
Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.