Did you ever ask a question of another, but did not get the answer you wanted to hear? You ask the question hoping that the individual will affirm what you have already decided the answer to be. In Matthew’s Gospel, the apostle Peter comes to Jesus asking a question about forgiveness. In Matthew 18:21 we read, “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?” Peter answered his question before Jesus could respond. Peter wanted to know if he should forgive up to seven times. Now it is not exactly clear what Peter meant by seven times. Did he mean that when you forgave a church member seven times then you were done? If an eighth time came along, then you didn’t have to forgive? Or did the number seven mean perfection? Was Peter asking Jesus if he had to offer perfect forgiveness? Now, whatever Peter meant, he does seem to be asking to see if there are limitations on forgiveness. Is there only so much forgiveness to go around?
Jesus responds to Peter with a number of his own. Jesus says, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Peter was probably confused by Jesus’ answer. What does that even mean? Jesus then goes on to tell a parable about a king who wished to settle accounts with servants. As he called each servant before him to settle up, one servant came forward owing 10,000 talents. In modern money, it is $3.48 billion. There was no way this servant would ever be able to pay the king back. So, as you would expect, the servant begs for more time to come up with what he owes. The king is moved by his plea. He does not grant the servant an extension but instead erases his entire debt. He now owes nothing. Freed from his debt, the servant heads out only to meet another servant who owes him just a little. When this servant asks for more time, the recently forgiven servant will have nothing of it. Instead, he threw him into prison until he could pay his debt.
This news makes it back to the king. The king once again calls the servant before him demanding to know why he didn’t forgive his fellow servant after he had just received forgiveness. Incensed with the servant, the king takes back his forgiveness and orders him to be tortured until he pays back everything. The story ends with Jesus saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” (Matthew 18: 35)
So back to the original question. If a church member sins against me, how often should I forgive? Well, the first truth here is that church members sin against one another. Even though we are followers of Jesus, we still lug around with us the baggage of our human sinfulness. As a result, as church members, we say and do things that cause hurt to others. Any person who has ever spent time with a church family knows that this is true. We can still wound others with our words, actions, or lack of action. The church is by no means a perfect place, but a group of sloppy saints trying to do the right thing. Yet, sometimes we get it wrong.
As a pastor for the last 30 years with the same church, I wish I could say I always got it right. Yet, sometimes I am a sloppy saint. We all are. That is why forgiveness is such an important part of the church. If we can’t forgive one another, then it makes our proclamation of God’s grace seem cheap or inauthentic. If there is anywhere forgiveness should have a good root system is in the church. Now, this does not mean excusing unacceptable or unharmful actions, but it does mean forgiveness should always be a part of our interactions with one another. When unforgiveness plops down in a pew or a pulpit, then problems are inevitable.
Forgiveness is not easy. It can be tough work. Yet, Jesus has demonstrated what it looks like. The only guideline is to forgive from your heart. And when we can begin there, God can then take care of the rest.