The common theme of the readings from Genesis and Matthew that we read earlier is forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is a central theme of the life of Christian discipleship. We pray the same prayer every Sunday morning, specifically asking God to forgive us something—here, it’s our debts, but in other churches and traditions it’s trespasses or sins—and pledging that we will in turn offer forgiveness to others. One of the principal ways the church over the centuries has understood the meaning of the life and ministry, but especially the death and resurrection, of Jesus is that they make available to us the forgiveness of the sins that have created a barrier between us and God.
But if we go beyond all these theological and churchy emphases, we find that forgiveness is an essential element in any human relationship. Given our nature as (at least occasionally) deceitful and self-centered persons who sometimes act thoughtlessly or even in a deliberately hurtful manner, the need for forgiveness and reconciliation looms large. Apart from forgiveness, relationships can and will become irreparably broken. Just as our sinfulness builds barriers between us and God, it also creates obstacles between us and our human relationship partners, and unless we do something to eliminate those barriers, they will keep growing until they become all but insurmountable. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, seeking to lead the people of South Africa out of the Apartheid era without catastrophic bloodshed and everlasting enmity between the races, believed so strongly in the necessity of forgiveness that he wrote a book on the subject. He called it No Future without Forgiveness.
Whether we look at it theologically or simply on a human level, forgiveness is a big deal.
What we may sometimes fail to recognize, especially if we look at examples of forgiveness in popular culture, such as in books, movies, songs, and even on occasion a sermon or two, is just how hard forgiveness is to accomplish. It is rarely clean and tidy, the way it often is on the big screen. In fact, the road to true forgiveness and reconciliation is a tortuous one, with many hairpin turns, switchbacks, and detours. Sometimes we come a long way along the road only to find a sign telling us that the bridge is out. And the potholes—God, the potholes! Sometimes Forgiveness Highway resembles the road I traveled in South Sudan with a busful of singing orphans, where our speed on that twenty-mile trip may have topped out at a blistering fifteen miles per hour and where the paved or gravel portion was nothing more than a brief diversion from the ridges and canyons that were the road’s true character.
In different ways, both the reading from Matthew and the one from Genesis do acknowledge that forgiveness is not a neat, one-off action that ends with the former adversaries walking arm-in-arm off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Both passages force us to face the truth that reconciliation is not easy, and for it to take lasting effect we must put in some hard, repetitive work and learn to see events from a new perspective.
On the heels of Jesus’s instructions about how disciples are to handle conflicts, and his declaration that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound and heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed on heaven” (Matt 18:18), Peter brings up a practical question about life in the community. He is probably trying both to demonstrate that he understands what Jesus has been trying to teach and to make up for that embarrassing episode of a few chapters ago, when he misunderstood Jesus’s meaning so badly that Jesus called him Satan. So I guess we should give him credit for making an effort—giving it the old college try—but once again poor ol’ Pete comes up short. He asks, “Lord, if another member of the [community] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as—” and here pauses for effect, expecting his fellow disciples, if not Jesus himself, to be appropriately impressed with his magnanimity— “seven times?” (v. 21). Three times to forgive the same debt or offense is probably the gold standard, but Peter cranks it up all the way to seven. He knows Jesus’s habit of raising the standard from what is expected, so he does his best to get the jump on him. Seven times! He looks around at the group with an air of smugness: what do you think of that, suckers?
But once again Peter has failed to get it. Seven is the divine number of perfection or completeness, so by raising the bar to that level he appears to be looking for a quantifiable and transactional limit to his obligation to forgive. Three times is hard, and seven will be that much harder, but surely there is a point at which I can stop bothering, write that person off, unfriend her on Facebook, and move on with my life. Forgiving someone seven times must surely absolve me of further responsibility, right?
Jesus’s answer sticks a pin in Peter’s balloon: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (v. 22). You can almost hear the pop! and the hiss of escaping air as Peter once again realizes that he has missed the point.
Jesus does not choose the number seventy-seven randomly, or simply to pile onto Peter’s bruised ego. He takes it from a story from the fourth chapter of Genesis, in which one of Cain’s descendants, a guy named Lamech, boasts about how he shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. (No, sorry, I’m thinking of Johnny Cash.) Lamech’s excuse is not much less lame, however: “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen 4:23–24).
After Cain kills his brother Abel, God puts some kind of mark on him to protect him from revenge attacks. This divine tattoo is supposed to warn anyone who seeks to harm Cain that sevenfold vengeance will follow. Lamech dramatically ups the ante: he warns anyone who would come after him that his clan will avenge him with an utterly incommensurate response—they will kill seventy-seven of their enemies for every death on their side. It’s a recipe for an endlessly escalating cycle of reprisals and violence.
Jesus turns Lamech’s seventy-sevenfold vengeance on its head when he tells Peter that he must be ready to forgive seventy-seven times. Commentator Stanley Saunders puts it this way: “Jesus is calling his community of disciples to participate in undoing the curse of Cain and Lamech that has kept their offspring trapped in spasms of envy, hatred, violence, and retribution across the generations to this day” (Saunders 2017, n.p.). Seventy-seven is not to be taken literally, of course. It’s Jesus’s way of telling Peter and the others that there must be no limits to their willingness to forgive. Like Nigel Tufnel’s amps in the movie This Is Spinal Tap, Jesus’s scales of forgiveness go to eleven.
His answer to Peter is also a sobering reminder that some hurts must be forgiven over and over again, not because the offender keeps repeating the offense, but because the original damage was so deep that the aftershocks continue to reverberate for years, sometimes for a lifetime. Even after the offender has departed from our lives permanently through distance or death, for our own sanity and emotional wellness we must continue to forgive.
Joseph learns this lesson the hard way. He has more reasons than most to hold a grudge, considering all that has happened to him since that fateful day when his brothers sold him into slavery, but he knows better. He recognizes the danger in giving in to either self-pity or the desire for revenge. He knows that, tempting as they are, those feelings will do nothing but rob him of more than he has already lost. It takes discipline, tenacity, and no small measure of hopefulness—all the more remarkable because of the hopeless situations in which he keeps landing—but he finally manages to let go of those feelings and get on with his life.
And he has to keep on letting go of them. After toying for a while with the idea of exacting revenge on his brothers, he decides to forgive them. When he first reveals his identity, he has to reassure his brothers that he is not out to get them. He says:
I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God (Gen 45:4-8).
This is a major turning point for Joseph. He rounds the corner from the vague but still enticing desire for revenge into a magnanimous spirit of forgiveness. He has compassion on the brothers who showed no compassion to him and as a result a family is reunited. Joseph sends for his father and brings him down to Egypt with his whole household, and Jacob gets to see again the son he thought was lost forever. Peace is restored. Reconciliation is achieved.
But the brothers aren’t so certain. Just like us when we receive forgiveness for some offense but can’t be sure the offended party isn’t simply waiting for us to slip up again so he can zap us, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that his declaration that all is forgiven is only in effect temporarily. Now that Jacob is dead, they start to get nervous again. And who knows but that they are right? Maybe Joseph has been having second thoughts about this whole reconciliation thing. He still recalls what they did to him, after all, and it still burns. He needs forgiveness that goes to eleven.
So the brothers send word to him in their father’s name, asking him to assure them that he has indeed forgiven and forgotten. And just to be on the safe side, they throw themselves down before him once again and offer to become his slaves.
Joseph’s response is telling. He says, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children” (vv. 19-21).
Joseph has learned some hard lessons in his life. Lessons about jealousy, treachery and the way things work out here in the real world. But he has also learned about self-discipline, faith, and hope in the face of hopelessness. And he is learning the power of forgiveness. His brothers have been near-sighted, letting their envy and resentment get the better of them and rashly trying to take care of their problem through violence and deceit. We often suffer from astigmatism, letting the hurts we have suffered blur our vision so that we never really recover from them and never learn to see life again with hope and faith. But Joseph has developed 50:20 vision.
Look again at Genesis 50:20. Joseph says, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” That’s 50:20 vision—seeing the events and circumstances of your life in such a way that even in the darkest, most trying times you can find God at work, trying to bring about something good. Which reminds me a lot of Romans 8:28, which reads, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” But “8:28 vision” doesn’t have the same ring to it that “50:20 vision” does.
To say that God works in all things for good is to understand that God is on our side. When the going gets tough, God gets going … on our behalf. That’s the attitude Joseph has learned to develop. In spite of all his trials, in spite of the ever-present temptation to give up on God the way God seems by all accounts to have given up on him, he doesn’t. Genesis 50:20 tells us that he figures out somewhere along the way that God has been at work all along to bring about some good. God didn’t ordain the mud and the mess of Joseph’s circumstances, but God takes it and sculpts it into a work of art. God takes the sow’s ear of Joseph’s life and fashions a silk purse. God turns the trash into a treasure. Choose your own metaphor.
I like that outlook. It gives me hope that my sufferings, as slight as they may be in comparison to Joseph’s, may not be the last word. They may be redeemable. And I can possibly even come to believe the assertion the Bible makes that “God is love.” I don’t have to be afraid a God who is unequivocally on my side. As the apostle Paul says a few verses further down, in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
We all have had experiences we wish had never happened. We all have circumstances in our lives we wish we could change. We all have done and said things we regret and have had others do and say things to us that we find hard to forgive. We all have suffered in one way or another. When those things happen, we have a choice to make: will we allow our short-sightedness to make us resentful and bitter, rendering us incapable of any positive action, or will we develop 50:20 vision—the kind of vision that sees God at work at all times to bring something good out of the bad circumstances of our lives?
To develop this kind of vision, we will have to do the hard work of forgiving, as Joseph did. We will have to set aside the hostility we have harbored, nurtured, even depended on for years. In some cases, our bitterness toward those who have wronged us may have become the central focus of our emotional and spiritual lives. At the very least it represents a barrier between us and the other person and between us and God. As Jesus makes clear in his parable of the unforgiving slave, we can’t worship and serve the God who has forgiven us all our debts and at the same time keep a running account of the debts others owe us.
Forgiveness is not easy to do, and we have to keep doing it again and again if we want it to stick—to make it part of the warp and woof of our lives. That’s why our forgiveness has to go to eleven.
So forgive, and keep on forgiving. Seek forgiveness, and keep on seeking it. Keep on receiving God’s forgiveness, which is always there for the asking. As Paul puts it, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).
Saunders, Stanley. 2017. “Commentary on Matthew 18:21–35.” Working Preacher. Online. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3393.