Peter Ustinov is remembered more for the movie characters he created than for his wise sayings. Nevertheless, he spoke truth when he said, “Love is an act of endless forgiveness.”
This is the lesson Jesus wanted the disciple Peter to learn. Peter comes to Jesus with what he believes is a very generous statement about forgiveness. He says if he forgives his brother seven times that should be more than enough. After all, how many times should you forgive someone who sins against you? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Jesus says, “Not even close.”
Jesus has a very different view of forgiveness. He tells Peter to forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven. There have been many interpretations of what this number means, but the one I like best (perhaps because of my diminishing memory) is that before you’ve reached that number (70X7=490) you will have lost count and have to start over.
Just to make sure we understand, Jesus tells us a parable about forgiveness. A master forgives a servant a huge debt, one that would have crushed even most wealthy men. A talent was about twenty years’ wages for a common laborer. You do the math. I think Jesus was trying to make the amount owed so outrageous that Peter and others who hear the story would gasp at the size of the debt.
The forgiven servant refuses to forgive another servant who owed him pocket change compared to the debt that had been cancelled for him. The master, hearing how ungrateful the forgiven servant had been, sends him to debtor’s prison until he can pay all that he owes.
While Peter’s question concerned the number of times he should forgive, and Jesus answered with a parable about amounts to be forgiven, the lesson is the same: forgive as God has forgiven you. We know that God always forgives us, whether that forgiveness involves frequency or amount. If God’s forgiveness is endless, how can ours be anything less?
Forgiveness is one of the central themes of Scripture. God forgives Adam and Eve. They have to suffer the consequences of their sin (most people do), but they are forgiven. God forgives Jacob, David—even the entire nation of Israel. Jesus forgives Peter, Paul—even those responsible for his execution. No human being could possibly live up to the standard of forgiveness God has set.
Moreover, God forgets. Our sins are dropped “in the sea of God’s forgetfulness,” says a chorus we sang when I was growing up. I can speak only for myself, but I know that even with my diminishing memory I can’t forget as God does.
One of the most beautiful acts of forgiveness occurs in Luke 15, in the parable of the prodigal sons. In his analysis of that story, Kenneth Bailey points out how the two sons humiliate their father by their selfish behavior. The younger son treats his father as if he were already dead, then returns home after squandering a third of the family fortune. The older son refuses to attend the banquet celebrating the triumph of his father’s love. In the face of behavior so rude that it violates the fifth Commandment (the punishment for which could be death by stoning), the father continues to forgive.
Forgive seven times? Not even close. If we forgive as God has forgiven us, we won’t even keep track. We’ll forgive, and forgive, and forgive—endlessly. Don’t we pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us?”