Matthew 18:21-22 “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.’”
Numerologically, the number seven was seen as a number of completeness in the Hebrew tradition. Jesus is, in effect, telling Peter to go above and beyond the call of duty. Seventy-seven. Uber-completeness, beyond what would normally be expected. Why such an emphasis on forgiveness? We must, as always, look at this admonition in context.
Immediately before this exchange between Peter and Jesus, Jesus gives the disciples guidelines for church discipline (Matt. 18:15-17). The gist is that if someone in the church wrongs you, you are to address the matter with them directly. If they refuse to listen, you bring in backup, finally bringing the matter before the church if they continue to be obstinate. At that point, if they refuse to acknowledge the harm they have done, they are to be “as a Gentile and a tax collector” to the members of the church—that is to say an outsider. This directive is complicated and nuanced by the fact that elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus praises gentiles (8:10) and dines with tax collectors (9:10).
After this comes a shocking statement. Jesus gives the church apparently immense authority when it comes to discipline: “...whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). In other words, anything that a group of you chooses to hold onto, God will hold onto. Anything that a group of you chooses to let go of, God will let go of. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (v. 20).
Jesus is telling the disciples, “You are my proxies. You are my representatives. I’m trusting you.” This is a big statement, and it places a load of responsibility on the disciples and the church. This is why Jesus instructs Peter to go above and beyond in verse 22; it is not Peter’s own forgiveness or even the church’s own forgiveness that he is extending, but Christ’s forgiveness. That means there is much more riding on how, to whom, and how freely this forgiveness is extended.
Too often in the history of the church, the Biblical admonition to forgive has been turned into a weapon to further oppress and silence victims of violence and other heinous acts, as though victims’ refusal to forgive were a worse sin than the original wrong done to them. That view does not stand up to any serious moral judgment, or to a rigorous examination of the text at hand.
I recently read Miriam Toews’ novel Women Talking. Set in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia, it follows the deliberations of a group of women as they decide how to proceed in the aftermath of horrific violence perpetrated by the men of the colony. They know that they will soon be asked, and expected, to publicly forgive the culprits. One of the interlocutors suggests that perhaps there is a kind or category of forgiveness that is entirely within God’s purview, that some acts are beyond our individual capacity as humans to forgive, and that we must trust in God to forgive those responsible. I would like to suggest that something like this kind of forgiveness is being hinted at in Matthew 18. Jesus is not telling Peter – or us—to let people abuse him or walk over him time and again. In our capacity as members of the Church, though, as those who carry Christ’s forgiveness to each other and the world, it is incumbent on us not to restrict that forgiveness.
Reconciliation is a lofty goal, and sometimes won’t be possible on an individual basis in this life. Blessedly, God’s capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation imbues and supersedes our own, helping transform our communities of faith where it is evident that Christ is here among us.