How Many Times?
Keith McFarren
September 17, 2023
Matthew 18:21-35
don’t know how you feel about it, but “Seventy times seven” is a lot of
forgiveness.  It’s four hundred and
ninety times worth of forgiveness.  Forgiving
someone once is hard enough.  Twice is almost
unthinkable.  Remember the old adage:
“Hurt me once, shame on you.  Hurt me
twice, shame on me!”  Seventy times
seven…490 times…that would even be tough for someone like Mother Teresa to
that is what Jesus tells Peter to do.  Keep
on forgiving, even when forgiveness seems ridiculous.  Keep on forgiving even when forgiveness is
the last thing we want to do.  Keep on
forgiving because forgiving is more of a gift we give ourselves rather than a
favor we do for someone else.
B. Brown, in his sermon entitled The Forgiving Principal (Ministry
Matters, August 1, 2020) states that current medical research shows that persons
who are unforgiving are more susceptible to a variety of illnesses than people
who are more tolerant of others.  The
New England Journal of Medicine reports that Type A personalities, people who
have long been thought to be more prone to cardiovascular problems, are no more
likely than anyone else to suffer a heart attack of a stroke.  
culprit for all their heart problems is instead caused by anger.  Type A persons are in danger of heart issues
if they carry around unresolved hostility.
It ends up being anger and not activity that puts so many of us at risk.

so many other reasons, Jesus knows that forgiveness is for our own good.  People that refuse to forgive others end up
doing more damage to themselves than to anyone else…including the person or
persons they cannot seem to forgive.
week, Jesus was talking about reconciliation and how he is present in the lives
of those who agree to live in harmony with others.  So Peter, trying to look cool in front of
Jesus, walks up to him and says, “Suppose someone in my own family or in my
church family does something really bad to me.
How often should I forgive them?”
Peter is really saying is, “Suppose someone sinned against me,” and then trying
to look like he’s the perfect disciple, the one full of the Spirit and full of
God’s grace and mercy he goes out on a limb and says “Should I forgive them up
to seven times?” thinking that Jesus would probably say, “Whoa, wait a
minute.  Seven times?  That’s way too many.”
      You see, Peter knew Jewish law and
according to Jewish law, Peter thought he was really doing something good
because scribal law clearly read: “If a man transgresses one time, forgive
him.  If a man transgresses two times,
forgive him.  If a man transgresses three
times, forgive him.  If a man
transgresses four times, do not forgive him.”
    So what
Peter has done is to take the law of limited forgiveness, multiply it by two
and add one, and then sit back with a smile on his face thinking that Jesus
would think he was a pretty good guy.
if we listen to our scripture reading this morning, we know that Jesus didn’t
respond that way.  Jesus did the math
right there in front of Peter and said, “How about seventy times seven
times?  But Jesus isn’t trying to show
Peter his knowledge in math, instead he’s trying to show Peter his knowledge and
his belief about infinite grace.    
was stepping out of the world in which we live and stepping into God’s world
and describing a new reality for those of us who follow him…because in God’s
world there is a different way of keeping score.  
    In God’s
world, every time you accuse someone else of something, you are incriminating
yourself.  But every time you forgive
someone else, it’s like you are passing out a cool, cold cup of grace from the
bucketful of grace that God has so unselfishly already given you.
not that we should swallow all our resentment and “forget and forgive” as
though nothing has happened.  The key
thing is that as disciples of Jesus, one should never, ever give up focusing on
making forgiveness and reconciliation our main goal.  If a confrontation happens, and it will happen
to all of us, it must always end with forgiveness and reconciliation in mind
and not with the idea that someday, somehow, some way, we’ll get even with the
person that did this to us.  
of measuring and remembering the sins that are committed against us, we are to begin
to offering grace back to those who have sinned against us.  Instead of pointing out all the negativity,
we are to focus on the positive aspects and count the ways that we can work together
to bring us all back together again.
you ever wondered if Jesus had a sense of humor, our scripture reading this
morning offers us a pretty good look.  As
the story goes, a king wanted to settle all his accounts with his slaves.  So he calls one of them who owes him 10,000
talents.  Now depending upon which
historian you use to do your research, you will find that 10,000 talents was
either equal to the gross national product of a relatively large nation or the
equivalent of 150,000 years of average wages back in first century Israel.  
other words, Jesus is exaggerating here a little bit…or maybe a lot…because no
slave could get that far in debt.  But
regardless of the exaggeration, the slave calmly responds, “Be patient, and
I’ll pay you back every penny I owe you.”
Now, I don’t know about you but to have someone owe me 150,000 years of
wages and then for him to tell me to “hold my horses” because I’ll get paid,
well, a red flag just went up. But for some reason, the king just shrugged his
shoulders, and immediately forgave the entire debt.
the plot thickens and once again human nature takes over and we see that mankind
is always far more ready to resent than we are to forgive.  The man who was forgiven this enormous debt
comes across a guy who owns him one hundred denarii…or about one hundred days worth
of wages…which again is a lot of money for first century Israel.  
the man who was forgiven of his unimaginable debt wants his money and he wants
it now.  With the second man unable to
pay his debt, he is thrown into jail by the man who was just forgiven, to be
tortured until he can somehow come up with the money to pay his entire debt.
that’s not the end of the story.  The
king called the first man in before him and placed his condemnation before him
in a question, “I forgave you all that debt because you begged me; should you
not also have some compassion?”
what’s the point?    Well, the point is twofold.  First, each and every one of us owes a debt…a
debt that we could never pay back, no matter how long we live.  We owe Jesus a debt for dying on the cross
for us.  We owe him a debt for the
forgiveness of our sins and for the offer of our salvation.  And Jesus, because of his unconditional
grace, just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Don’t worry about what you’ve done
in the past, all has been forgiven and forgotten; you don’t owe me a
That’s the invitation that Jesus issues to each of us.  It’s not about counting how many times we
should forgive someone until we reach some magic number that then allows us to
walk away or, worse yet, reaching a magic number that tells us that now, after forgiving
someone X amount of times we can finally seek revenge.  It’s about leading with grace, over and over
and over again.  
underneath all of this, there is another lesson, a more subtle lesson, but
still, a lesson that is just as important for us to understand.  Jesus said in the very last verse, that those
who refuse to forgive others will themselves be refused forgiveness.  That’s some pretty tough talk, isn’t it?
Forgiveness is a lot like the air in our lungs.  There is only room for you to inhale after
you have exhaled.  You can only get the
next lungful after you have breathed out the first lungful.  So, if you insist on not giving the lungful
of air that you have to someone who desperately needs it, they will die and
because you refused to give them what you had, you will eventually, and selfishly
suffocate right along with them.  
if the moral or spiritual equivalent of your lungs is your heart…then your
heart is either open or closed.  If your
heart is open, if it’s able and willing to forgive others, then it will also be
open to receive God’s love and forgiveness.
But if your heart is closed to giving forgiveness it will also be closed
to receiving forgiveness.
isn’t some type of legalism.  It is, as
Myron Augsburger puts it, “simply the expectation of responsible persons whose
moral sense of responsibility will call them to express the same forgiveness
toward others that they have received from God” (Myron S. Augsburger, The
Communicator’s Commentary – Matthew, Dallas, Texas; Word Publishing, 1982, 224).
story is told of two friend walking through the desert.  During some point in their journey, they had
an argument and the one friend slapped the other one in the face.  The one who got slapped was hurt, but without
saying anything, stooped down and wrote in the sand, “Today my best friend
slapped me in the face.
they continued on in their journey they came to an oasis, where they decided to
rest and cool down and take a bath.  The
one who had been slapped earlier, got stuck in the muck and the mire that was
like quicksand and began to drown, but his friend saved him.  After he recovered from his near death
experience, the man wrote on a big rock, “Today my best friend saved my life.”
friend asked him, “After I hurt you the other day, you wrote in the sand and
now, after I save your life, you write on a big rock, why?  The other man replied, “When someone hurts us
we should write it down in the sand so that the winds of forgiveness can blow
it away.  But, when someone does
something good for us, we need to engrave it in stone so that the wind can
never erase it” (Stephen Felker, How Often Should I Forgive?)
willingness to forgive us is linked to our willingness to forgive others.  This in itself leads me to wonder if we
really understand what we say every week when we pray, “forgive us our
trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (The Lord’s Prayer).  That passage alone is all that we need to
fully understand Jesus words of “don’t forgive just seven times, but seventy
times seven.”
James said it best when he wrote, “For judgment will be without mercy to anyone
who has shown no mercy” (James 2:13).  James
is simply telling us that divine forgiveness and human forgiveness go hand in
have all been forgiven a debt which can never, ever be paid.  Human sin, your sin and my sin, brought about
the death of God’s own Son so that we might be forgiven of all we do.  For that reason, we must forgive others as
God has forgiven us, or we will find no mercy.