How many times should I forgive my brother who sins against me?
It's one of the most famous questions in the Bible, asked by Peter in a quiet moment. Peter even suggests the answer, hoping (perhaps) to demonstrate his own faithfulness by showing his understanding. Should I forgive my brother seven times? Seven times seems pretty generous. By seven times, your brother has developed a pattern that probably isn't going to get better. In a world that too often gives us one chance, seven chances sounds pretty good.
And when we read this story, that's often what we focus on - forgiveness. How often should I forgive? What does faith look like in forgiveness? What can we learn from Peter, who is so like us?
But what if there's something even more profound we can learn about Jesus from this encounter, something we keep reading right over?
Because the beauty in this passage is not just that forgiveness is endless (for of course, we know that Jesus did not mean to literally count seventy-seven forgivenesses for anyone), but the beauty is in how Jesus responds.
When we interpret this passage, we are often quick to say that impetuous Peter has it wrong again. That he means well, but he's missed the mark. That Peter's vision is too small, that his heart is too set on things of this world. That he's too willing to keep account. And on and on and on we go, recognizing so much of ourselves in Peter that it's just easy to draw lessons out of this passage about how wrong and foolish we are and how much our faith needs to change. How shallow our faith really is. Whatever you want to say about it, really.
What we have to recognize, however, is that this is not the response that Jesus has to Peter. Yes, Jesus corrects the disciple, but He doesn't have the same harsh, judgmental response that we tend to have toward him. Jesus doesn't look at Peter and see the things that we so easily see.
Rather, Jesus looks at Peter and sees a starting point.
He doesn't have to. Jesus could totally go off on the guy. Seven times? SEVEN TIMES? You think seven times is enough to forgive someone? Oh, boy, Peter, you could not be more wrong. You could not have messed this up more. You're such a foolish man, so limited in your understanding. Your faithfulness is a joke if that's what you think forgiveness means. Seven times! Oh, brother!
Nor does He start into a textbook definition of what forgiveness is, starting from scratch to explain what faithful forgiveness looks like. Notice that one of the reasons we've had to interpret this passage is because Jesus does not just say, You shouldn't keep count of how many times you forgive someone. You should just forgive freely because you have been forgiven freely.
No, what Jesus does is far more beautiful, more freeing, and more truth-and-grace-filled even than this. What Jesus does is use Peter's faith as a starting point for something deeper. He indicates in His response that what Peter has is not bad, but is not fully formed. He uses Peter's understanding to push him further into faithfulness. No, Peter. Not seven, although seven is a good start. Seventy times seven. He uses Peter's own words, his own current situation, as the fodder for growth. That's why Jesus says seventy times seven - that's Peter's seven. That's why He doesn't say it any other way.
It's easy for us to think we're getting it wrong. It's even easier for us to think that someone else is getting it wrong. It's easy for us to look at a Peter - in ourselves or in others - and to really go off on the guy. How foolish can you be? Seven times? Really?
But the better understanding is to see that seven not as so far off course as to be laughable, but to see it as a starting point for greater faith. To see it as the place where we now are and a launching pad for where we're going. Jesus responds to Peter by saying, not quite, but this is good. For you can grow from here.
We all can.