How Many Times?
“How Many Times?”
There are certainly times when living-up to the call of Christ feels beyond our grasp.
Dr. R. S. Clark was a retired educator and superintendent of the Troup County School system, whom I grew to love and respect, having served as his pastor for a decade. His favorite quote was from Robert Browning: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” As followers of Christ, we’ve been called to reach beyond our grasp... no doubt.
Of course, we’re only human - and there’s only so far any of us can hope to reach: “The spirit’s willing, but the flesh is weak.”
So, we struggle at times with some of the more demanding, ethical, and spiritual aspects, and requirements/commandments, of God’s Word.
Think about it... if we’d all “go the extra mile” like Jesus calls us to do... what kind of an impact would that have on our friends, our families... our churches?
What if we... just US church people... truly followed the “Golden Rule” - what if you and I set out to follow Jesus’ example of “doing unto others as we would have them do unto us”? Treating others the way we desire to be treated?
What would our community look like, if God’s People took the lead... and when people reviled us, or spoke harshly towards us... treated us poorly... we “turned the other cheek” - what if we loved our enemies and prayed for those who’d persecute us?
I say “WE” because... I need to live into these things, these teachings, as much, or more, than any of you do!
And then to top it off... our scripture for today lands in all of our laps. Every single person. Forgive. How many times should I forgive? What’s the requirement? What’s the letter of the Law?
We’re told Peter is the disciple who asked this question. Yet, I can’t help but imagine ALL of Jesus’ disciples were grappling with Jesus’ concept of forgiveness. They were just people like us. They struggled with Jesus’ teachings, and sometimes thought he was too demanding, his “Kingdom teachings” were too lofty, too difficult. Beyond the reach of our grasp!
So I imagine Peter striking up the conversation (while the other disciples listened closely)...
saying something like, “Lord, I know you are always talking about forgiving people. You know... turning the other cheek, and you said we should pray that God forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. But what are the limits? Should we forgive them as many as seven times?"
Peter obviously didn’t mind the idea of forgiving a brother or sister... one or two... maybe even seven times! That sounds amazingly generous, right? Seven times forgiveness would surely be sufficient, and would show Jesus just how spiritual and loving and forgiving we are right?
Peter need some clarification here! You know it’s easy to forgive a little, but, surely there has to be a limit, right? After all a person only has two cheeks. Seven seemed a reasonably gracious number so Peter thought "Maybe I should forgive seven times."
And listen: we all can relate. We understand how Peter felt; forgiving someone can be particularly difficult. When someone does something to us that hurts - our impulse is to hurt them back, not forgive them. It gets even harder if the person really hurts us bad, or continues to hurt us again and again. It really becomes difficult if we’ve called that someone a “friend” or "brother" or "sister" or "mother " or "father" or "husband" or "wife." You see, the closer someone is to us the easier it is for them to hurt us and the more vulnerable we are to them. So when others hurt us deeply, it becomes very difficult to forgive a sister or brother in Christ.
But when Peter asked Jesus, "Should I forgive my brother or sister seven times." Jesus said, "Not just seven times but seventy-seven times seven." Which is sometimes translated 70 X 7 times! So Peter's whipped out his calculator and said, "That's 490 times. Should I forgive my brother 490 times? And if I do can I punch him if he does it a 491st time?" Of course, Jesus didn't mean literally 490 times. The numbers Jesus used were symbolic. Seven symbolizes the fullness of God's work. In his answer Jesus squared seven and multiplied it by ten. He meant that Peter should keep forgiving his brother or sister just as God keeps forgiving us.
So Jesus offered a parable to stress his point. A servant who sought the forgiveness of his master for a debt he could not pay, was forgiven! And yet he refused to offer that same forgiveness to his brother (a fellow servant). So the Master said, “you wicked servant... I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Should you have not had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?”
The point of the parable, that must certainly be ringing in our ears... is that since you and I have been forgiven... since our debt wiped out... our sins atoned for by the amazing love of Christ... we must be a people of forgiveness.
In fact... that love, and mercy, and forgiveness - on God’s part - creates an obligation on our part, to forgive, as we have been forgiven.
Of course, it's not easy to forgive. So we ask Jesus, "When can I stop? How much forgiving is enough? When can I stop turning the other cheek and just whollup them one?"
And Jesus, in his graceful and loving way, says, "Who ever said you could stop?”
If we want God to forgive us, we must, in turn, be willing to forgive.
Forgiveness isn't a matter of tallying rights and wrongs. Forgiveness is a matter of receiving and offering God’s grace.
And it may seem too much... too difficult... too demanding to ever live up to such a standard. But then, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
Maybe we often struggle with forgiveness because we haven’t yet truly appreciated how much God loves us... and has forgiven us.