Seventy Times Seven
In regards parables there are three general considerations to remember when reading them.
- First, parables are not random arbitrary stories. Rather they were always told to answer a question or address a particular situation. It is therefore very important to study the context in which the biblical author places a parable.
- Secondly, Jesus' stories are parables, not allegories. Although details may have symbolic significance, more commonly a parable is intended to teach one main point or truth. A truth we need to seek and grasp firmly without wandering in the lush forest of speculation, trying to assign "meaning" to secondary details.
- Third, as we read these stories we need consciously to leave our twentieth century Western world behind, because Jesus' parables draw on the common daily life and perspectives of first-century Palestine.
How Many Times To Forgive?
The parable we'll focus in this article was given in answer to a question Peter presents to Jesus in Matthew 18:21.
Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?
Peter asked this question just after hearing Jesus speak about dealing with a brother who sins against you but shows no remorse (Matt 18:15-17). Jesus taught that you first;
- Go to the offending brother, explain your grievance, and seek their apology.
- If they refuse apology, revisit him with several others as witnesses, that they may help in encouraging the offender to acknowledge his need to repent.
- Failing that, the matter was to be made public; at which point it was hoped the offender would become aware as to how unacceptable his behavior and unrepentant heart was to the wider community.
- And if the offender still remained unrepentant, Jesus said he was to be disciplined.
Now with Peter this probably seemed sensible. However, it left him wondering. What about those who sin against you, seek your forgiveness, but then keeping repeating the same offence, each time seeking your forgiveness. What is to be done with such offenders?
Therefore he asks the question;
“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? (Matt. 18:21)
Now Peter thought what he was proposing was generous, no doubt. For according to the Rabbinic tradition of the day, and I quote; “If a man commits a transgression, the first, second and third time he is forgiven, the fourth time he is not.”
In other words, there was a limit.
Peter, maybe having questions that were at odds with this traditional way of thinking, and having got to know something of Jesus' gentle nature and expansive approach to applying scripture, brings to the table the number seven.
It was a number within the biblical narrative that symbolized 'completeness', therefore he's inquiring what Jesus considers to be a well-rounded perspective on forgiving.
And Jesus, as Jesus does, seizes the opportunity to expound on the nature of forgiveness, the nature of man, and the nature of God. He replies,
“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven...” (Matt 18:22)
Or, as other translations put it, 'Seventy-seven times'.
Do you think Jesus simply had a number in mind here?
Seventy-seven is not just some arbitrary number that Jesus has picked out of the air, rather he is employing a rabbinical teaching tactic called remez. Remez being a Hebrew word meaning ‘hint’.
Often times a rabbi would mention a keyword or phrase in his teaching that would hint at a passage from the Hebrew scriptures, with the assumption that the audience would know the context of that passage and therefore be able to import that context into the current teaching moment and so add greater significance and clarity to the lesson being given .
Remez ( רֶמֶז) – "hints" or the deep (allegoric: hidden or symbolic) meaning beyond just the literal sense. Derash ( דְּרַשׁ) – from Hebrew darash: "inquire" ("seek") – the comparative (midrashic) meaning, as given through similar occurrences.
So the question is, what passage does Jesus have in mind when he employs remez here?
Interestingly, there is only one other place in scripture where the number 'seventy-seven' appears.
Jesus takes Peter and his disciples back to a obscure little story in Genesis 4:23-34, where a man named Lamech is quoted as saying,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, hear my words. I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for injuring me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
Lamech was a descendent of Cain (Cain infamous for being the first murderer in human history). And Lamech demonstrates similar violent tendencies as his forefather, though Lamech takes it to unprecedented levels; being a man who by no means would allow another man to sin against him without retaliation far in excess of the offence.
He exacted a kind of limitless revenge, symbolized by the number “seventy-seven”. He considered that if God was justified to take seven times (thorough/complete) vengeance against anyone that kills Cain (Gen 4:15), then he was justified in taking seventy-seven times. In other words, don't cross Lamech! Because whatever slight you caused him would be repaid well and above anything that might be considered justified. Following in Cain's footsteps, Lamech was a man that sought his own revenge, and did so based on his own rendition of justice. If you slapped his face, he would cut of your head. If you stole his sheep, he would murder your family.
But that has been a facet of human nature since the fall—to get revenge with interest. And history is replete with example after example of people seeking revenge; many of them extreme. Such sayings as “Vengeance is a dish best served cold”, “Don't get mad, get even”, are well known and understood. But for many “getting even” isn't really enough. Rather it's “I'm going to make you pay, so that you'll never do that again.” There's a lot of Dirty Harry in each of us, daring someone to “Go ahead, make my day.”
NOTE: Lamech was also the first to be recorded as a polygamist. So not a great role model, and I can only wonder what it must have been like to be married to such a man.
So when Jesus utilises Remez here, to pull Lamech into the story to help clarify his point, what does Lamech's story add to Jesus' message?
Limits To Forgiveness?
Jesus is using the power of comparison to make a point. He wants his followers to exemplify the same relentless passion and thirst for forgiveness and reconciliation, as Lamech did for vengeance & punishment.
Just as Lamech was bent on exacting revenge that was above and beyond the perceived offence, Jesus wants his disciples to go above and beyond in forgiving the wrongs committed against them. To forgive “seventy times seven” is Jesus' way of saying, “I want you to be endlessly forgiving others.” For Jesus, this was to be a fundamental aspect of what it means to follow him.
Now is Jesus asking an easy thing here?
No! In fact, to many this would seem unreasonable. Because, after all, don't some people sometimes deserve our unforgiveness. Not to mention that forgiveness can be excruciatingly difficult.
Jesus knew what he was asking was challenging, and that is why he immediately launches into a parable that addresses the obvious reaction he knew his hearers would have. Here's how the story begins;
“For this reason, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. As he began settling his accounts, a man who owed ten thousand talents was brought to him. Because he was not able to repay it, the lord ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, children, and whatever he possessed, and repayment to be made..."
This is a “seventy-seven” story, a story of extremes. Ten thousand talents has been estimated to be the modern equivalent of over two and a half billion dollars, and for a laborer of Jesus' day would have taken 164000 years to repay.
Such a debt infers that it was more than likely stolen or attained illegitimately. Here is a man who has been looting the kings treasury on a massive scale for a long time. This man stands condemned not just as a debtor, but a thief; pilfering or defrauding a king of a huge fortune, spending it all, having made no plans, nor even it seems having the intention of paying anything back.
The man was impossibly in debt, to a point that would have shocked Jesus' audience. But the next part of the parable would have shocked them more-so;
The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, 'Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.' Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
What an impossibly ludicrous request the man makes ($2.5 billion, 164000 years of debt), but he asks “Be patient, I will repay everything.”
He knows it, the king knows, Jesus audience knows it --- that there is no way on Gods green earth this man can accomplish what he promised, not in one hundred lifetimes.
The man is unimaginably in debt, possibly a criminal, justifiably a candidate for kingly justice without mercy. And yet -- The king writes the debt off! Even continues to retain the man as his servant!!
Rather than redeem his own lost fortune at the cost of the man and his family, the master chooses instead to redeem this useless servant at an exorbitant cost to himself.
The king, in effect, turns the debt into a gift. The money is his, and he gives up the right to it.
What did that forgiveness cost the King?
The Priceless Gift Of Forgiveness
Some of his audience at this point are possibly wondering at Jesus' point. Maybe some have begun to make a connection. So Jesus carries on.
Imagine, he says, that this same man, now forgiven of such an incomprehensibly staggering debt at immense loss to his master, now goes out and finds a fellow servant who owed him money. The parable continues;
After he went out, that same slave found one of his fellow slaves who owed him one hundred silver coins. So he grabbed him by the throat and started to choke him, saying, ʻPay back what you owe me!ʼ Then his fellow slave threw himself down and begged him, ʻBe patient with me, and I will repay you.ʼ But he refused. Instead, he went out and threw him in prison until he repaid the debt.
How do you think Jesus' audience feel about this servant now?
Jesus, knowing his audience is getting worked up, brilliantly correlates their emotions with those of the characters in the story by continuing;
When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were very upset and went and told their lord everything that had taken place. Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ʻEvil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?ʼ And in anger his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed.
“This” Jesus concludes, “is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive each other from your heart.” (Matt 18:35)
What do you think Jesus' point is?
- God expects us to extend the same gracious attitude when we are sinned against, as God has extended to us.
It is easy to proclaim the virtue of forgiveness. But reality is another matter. C.S Lewis put it so well; “Forgiveness is a beautiful word, until you have something to forgive.”
When we fail to recognize how much we've been forgiven, how often we need forgiveness, we will fail or struggle to forgive others. At best we will manage a pretend forgiveness that on the surface appears real but harbors resentment still. Therefore to begin a life of forgiving seventy times seven, we must begin with an awareness of how much we've been forgiven.
Further Points To Ponder
Forgiveness deals with three things:
- Forgiveness deals with real sin, with the inexcusable, the unforgettable, and the unacceptable.
- Secondly forgiveness means erasing the act, letting go of the wrong. That is the precise meaning of the Greek word used in Matthew 18:21. There should be a letting go of the desire to get revenge, a release of the entire situation to the Lord.
It is a prerequisite to reconciliation. However, whereas forgiveness is within our power, reconciliation takes two.
- Third, forgiveness is granted, not earned. I am not to wait until I no longer hurt, or wait until the offender 'makes up for' their offence. Forgiveness is a servant of the will, not a prisoner of the emotions.
The KJV reads 'Seventy times seven' while others read 'Seventy-seven times'. There is an ambiguity in the Greek text that simply reads 'Seventy, seven'. This could mean, depending on context either 'seventy plus seven' or 'seventy times seven'.
Why does Jesus mention torture in his parable?
Torture was not a biblical form of punishment, but Christ describes a common practice in a land ruled by Herod and the Romans. Justification for torture was built on the idea that the man had hidden his borrowed funds and would reveal them under duress.
What are the reason we find it hard to forgive?
“Do not avenge yourselves... Revenge is mine, I will repay” (Rom 12:19) see also 1 Sam 24:12ff.
What challenge is presented by Jesus' words “unless you forgive each other from your heart.”
Forgiveness is not excusing other people when you come to 'understand' their actions. Forgiveness deals with sin. If actions can be excused, it needs to be accepted, not forgiven.
Nor is forgiveness 'forgetting', allowing something to slip out of our minds. When God 'forgets' our sins, they do does slip out of his omniscience. To say that he does not remember them against us is not the same as to say that he does not remember them. Something that can be forgotten is trivial; things that truly need forgiveness are not.
And forgiveness is not ignoring, avoiding, or being indifferent to a person who has harmed us.
© 2020 Richard Parr