"Seventy times that." When Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother, he felt seven times was adequate (Matthew 18: 21-45). But apparently not.
Jesus said he should forgive his brother 70 times the seven times he thought was reasonable, hence "70 times seven." He was using hyperbole, an exaggeration to make a point. So what was Jesus's point? Forgive your brother or sister as many times as they wrong you. That's the point.
Jesus then goes on to tell a great story that illustrates why this should be the case: God forgives us for the infinite number of wrongs we have committed and so we too should forgive those who have wronged us.
But there are two interesting insights we can also draw from Jesus' response to Peter. First, Jesus assumes that we will do things that hurt each other. Our impatience, insensitivity and selfishness are no surprise to him. He knows our weaknesses and yet loves us anyways and asks us to do the same for one another.
Second, Jesus assumes that our relationships will be deep enough, frequent enough, and committed enough that there will actually be opportunities where we will wrong each other. Relationships that are shallow, where we infrequently spend time together, and where we leave at the nearest sign of trouble are not relationships where this command will need to be followed. Only when we spend lots of time together, get to really know each other, and are committed to making our relationships work no matter what, will we have the opportunity to fulfill Jesus's command to forgive each other 70 times seven. So, what can we take away from this?
First, we will fail each other, so expect it to happen. I will fail you and you will fail me. Jesus is the only person that is truly reliable at not letting us down. The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will put our hope and confidence in the right place and have more grace and mercy for ourselves and others.
Second, we will discover that we are not perfect when we spend lots of time together, so get used to it.
If everyone appears perfect, you don't know them well enough and they don't know you well enough. Spend more time with them.
Third, to really be formed more into the people God desires us to be, we must remain committed to each other even when people hurt or disappoint us. There is no other way to fulfill Jesus's command to forgive each other 70 times seven. This takes time, humility, persistence and a mutual desire to work towards reconciliation. It's not easy, but it is what true community is about.
Finally, the journey of following Jesus together is a messy one but it is what makes us more like Jesus and demonstrates God's kingdom of peace in the here and now. To avoid deep relationships, choose to avoid spending time together, and to leave at the nearest sign of trouble is to prevent both of these things from happening. Instead of measuring the health of our communities by how few wrongs we commit, we should measure the health of our communities by how good we are at forgiving one another for the wrongs we will commit.
- Graham McMahon is a pastor with Church of the Nazarene. He can be contacted at email@example.com.