By Christopher Cookston
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22, NIV).
Mercy is forgiving someone who has wronged you when it is within your power to punish them. Mercy can be tricky. Each of us needs it frequently and are happy to get it, but we’re reluctant to give it to others. Mercy is not our natural response toward people who sin against us. Jesus knew this, so he taught his followers to be merciful to one another by forgiving each other. (To understand the context, read Matthew 18:1-35).
Mercy is magnified in this passage that begins with Peter’s question. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister?” I wonder how long this question had been burning inside of Peter’s mind.
Looking back only twenty verses reveals a controversial question as to who of the disciples was greatest in the kingdom. Maybe Peter’s feelings were hurt because no one mentioned him by name in that discussion. A little competition never hurt anyone, but this isn’t good. Quickly Jesus shows the men a small child and answers their question by saying that unless they express childlike humility they will not be in the kingdom, much less be respected in it.
Lack of humility among God’s people leads to all sorts of sinning against one another, and so Peter’s question seems very timely. How many times do I forgive a brother or sister who mistreats me? Should I forgive them seven times? Jesus answers, “seventy-seven times.” Forgiving one seven times sounds reasonable to the average human being, the operative word in that phrase being “sounds.” But Jesus ups the amount. His point isn’t that we forgive someone exactly seventy-seven times and no more. Rather, our mercy and forgiveness is to be without end, since God’s mercy toward us for our sin is endless.
None of us are perfect forgivers and/or mercy showers, only God is.
Endless mercy isn’t easy to express. How many times can you forgive your husband who comes home drunk four days per week for thirty-five years? How many times can you show mercy to your wife who habitually flirts with your friends? How many times can you forgive your parents who used abusive voices and hands on you for eighteen years? Well, Jesus says that you don’t stop forgiving, that your mercy fountain should never run dry. Moreover, Jesus pushes us a step further. He says that God will not show mercy to you unless you are merciful to others (Matthew 5:7; 18:35). By setting the standard for showing mercy at an impossible level, Jesus draws us to himself for help. Our mercy runs out, but his doesn’t. (The careful reader should note that mercy and forgiveness do not necessarily require the continuation of abusive relationships. Individuals who find themselves in such relationships should seek counsel and support from trusted advisers and the proper authorities when necessary.)
Being able to show God’s mercy toward those who have hurt, mistreated, maligned, or harmed you or your friends indicates that you have God’s mercy. That is, Jesus is helping you. His mercy is reproduced in us when we forgive, and forgive, and show mercy upon mercy. Now, let’s not be so foolish to think that our souls, and minds can just instantly forgive people all of the time. None of us are perfect forgivers and/or mercy showers, only God is. So as we think of those old grudges, let’s aim to give them up. Let’s pray asking God to give us grace so we can give his mercy to others, since he gives mercy to us. Then let’s plan to forgive those who sin against us. You can do this only by the power of the gospel in Christ Jesus. When you are merciful, you are his salt and light to a lost world, who desperately needs your Savior (Matthew 5:7, 13-16).
Christopher Cookston and his family reside in Prineville, Oregon. He serves Christ as lead pastor of Prineville Community Church, and is currently a Th.M. student at Western Seminary.