“Seventy times seven”: How we misinterpret Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer
“Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’” (Matt. 18:21, 22, NRSV).1
The date was May 28, 2016. And in this particular Adventist church I ran into the Sabbath School lesson study, already in progress, being conducted plenary style in the main sanctuary. The discussion was lively, and within minutes I found myself scribbling notes, especially as the conversation drifted to the Peter-Jesus dialog on forgiveness.
Quoting Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive an offending member (“seventy times seven”), the teacher asked the class: “What was Jesus saying?” After a few answers had floated, he summarized what he was hearing: “So it means,” he said, “that we keep on forgiving, keep on forgiving, keep on forgiving.” And although he did not use the word regardless at the end of his peroration, that is exactly what he meant to say—that we keep on forgiving, regardless.
Citing a case from Philadelphia, in which a black youth had killed a Korean exchange student, the teacher (who was black) told of how the Korean parents came over to the United States and, kneeling before the judge, pleaded that the black youth be given over to them, so they could care for him properly.
“Explain that to me!” the teacher said, with an air of confidence that he had nailed the point.
This has been the usual interpretation of Jesus’ response to Peter; and, frankly, I find it encouraging. None of us would want to live in a world where there was less (rather than more) forgiveness. Has humanity not suffered enough from centuries-old animosities between the various tribes and factions on the planet? Do we not all know of regions of the world where ancient grievances and bitterness continue to fester, producing a never-ending stream of ugliness, bloodshed, and death? “Not forgiving someone,” one brother said toward the end of the discussion (obviously quoting), “is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
The beauty of forgiveness
Just about every pastor has had to deal with situations within their congregations involving deep-seated and long-standing grudges among members. A young woman in a church I once pastored, complaining about losing her boyfriend to the new girl who had come to town, said to me: “Pastor, I won’t harm her myself; but if I should see danger coming to her, I wouldn’t tell her about it.” Such bitterness and unforgiveness within our ranks impede the mission of the church in very practical ways, especially when it infiltrates the clergy itself, and other leadership.
It was heartening to hear such noble sentiments being expressed in a local Adventist church by lay people, unfiltered by the educated protocols of academia. And, in truth, such sentiments have a strong appeal in the broader society, as can be seen in the spirited media coverage of stories in which magnanimous forgiveness comes into play.
The aftermath of the October 2006 killings in Pennsylvania, for example.
One October morning, Charles Roberts entered the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School near Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, and shot eight young Amish school girls, ages 6–13, murdering five of them before killing himself.
“In the midst of their grief over this shocking loss,” one news report said, “the Amish community didn’t cast blame, they didn’t point fingers, they didn’t hold a press conference with attorneys at their sides. Instead, they reached out with grace and compassion toward the killer’s family.
“The afternoon of the shooting,” the report continued, “an Amish grandfather of one of the girls who was killed expressed forgiveness toward the killer. . . . That same day Amish neighbors visited the Roberts family to comfort them in their sorrow and pain.
“Later that week the Roberts family was invited to the funeral of one of the Amish girls who had been killed. And Amish mourners outnumbered the non-Amish at Charles Roberts’ funeral.”2
According to a CBS News report, the killer’s mother’s “initial reaction was that she had to move away,” fearing reprisals. “But the Amish came to her the night of the shooting to say they wanted her to stay.” Said Terri Roberts, “ ‘There are not words to describe how that made us feel that day.’ ”
“‘For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us—wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?’ ”3
Such stories tug at the heartstrings. And when I hear them, no one says Amen louder.
How we misunderstand Jesus
As I reflected on the Sabbath School discussion described above, it occurred to me that, however praiseworthy, none of it got to the essential issue raised in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer. For without any of the participants seeming to recognize it, Peter’s question was not, “Should I forgive?” The answer to that was already clear to him from other discourses Jesus had given, including the Sermon on the Mount.4 Peter’s question, rather, was, “How many times?”
The context of his question was the church community. His query did not envision the Charles Roberts kind of infraction. What he had in mind were common, everyday offences that “my brother [or sister]” may commit. Jesus had just finished dealing with matters of more serious interpersonal consequence, and the steps that should be taken to address them—up to and including expulsion from the church (see Matthew 18:15–17). With that discussion behind them, Peter now switched to the more mundane frictions and infringements that occur as we live together in community.
This does not mean, of course, that serious (nonmalicious) problems will never arise within the community of faith. Early in 2016, I read a tragic news story out of New Jersey that could easily happen among church members. In the story, a father had left a loaded gun under a bed in his house, where his four-year-old son found it and used it to kill his six-year-old, visiting friend as they played together.5
A horrific tragedy, indeed—for both families. But one family still had their son; the other did not. And one can only imagine what it would have taken for the bereaved parents to forgive that father who had carelessly left a loaded gun within reach of a curious child. Conceivably—and for their own psychological and spiritual well-being—the grieving parents have long since come to terms with the horrible incident, forgiven the father whose boy had pulled the trigger, and moved on.
But how many who discuss Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer forget that 99.9 percent of such ghastly events occur just once? In all likelihood, people like those bereaved New Jersey parents will never have to face that kind of tragedy twice, caused by the same person.
This takes us back to the ordinary, day-to-day affairs of life assumed in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer. In a related passage in Luke, Jesus had expressed similar sentiments: “ ‘If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying “I repent,” you must forgive them’ ” (Luke 17:3, 4, NIV).
Undoubtedly, Jesus was thinking here of a variety of sins, since a sane person does not punch their brother or sister on the nose seven times a day, returning each time to beg forgiveness for the identical offence. Nor is it conceivable that Jesus would have had in mind incidents like that between those two New Jersey families. But in the normal course of events in everyday life, particularly in the home, church, or workplace (involving myriads of interactions with others), infractions can, in time, literally approach 7 a day, 70 over time, and even 490. And what was meant by what Jesus said was that for His followers, forgiveness under such circumstances should become second nature, a habit, a lifestyle—to the extent we stop keeping score.
But we misinterpret Jesus and distort the whole concept of forgiveness when we insinuate that His answer to Peter’s question encompasses the whole gamut of human situations that confront us.
Facing the reality of dark evil
As an international community, we have long gone beyond shock at the specter of dark evil. The names Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, and ISIS strike terror into whole communities and nations today. From ISIS, the most brutal of them all, we have seen incidents of sheer barbarism, such as beheadings and people being burned alive.
How does Jesus’ statement on serial forgiveness apply in such cases? Or in other cases of severe personal abuse and injury?
An acid attack, for instance?
“According to the Acid Survivors Foundation . . . , a Pakistani . . . organization working to eradicate acid violence, . . . the intent [of the perpetrators] is particularly sadistic and malicious—to maim permanently, consequently leading to lifelong physical disabilities, ostracism, severe psychological distress, and economic dependency for survivors.”6
The point would not be that the victims of such brutalities should not forgive. The point, rather, is whether it is appropriate to suggest that Jesus even remotely had such situations in mind in His discourse with Peter that day. Or, indeed, in any of His other statements on forgiveness.
Back in November 2004, five teenagers went to a supermarket in Ronkonkoma, New Jersey, bought a frozen turkey and, while driving down the highway, hurled the frozen bird out their car window as a prank. The heavy flying object smashed through the windshield of a 44-year old woman going in the opposite direction, critically wounding her.7
Would it even be Christian to press Jesus’ response to Peter upon a person in that woman’s condition? Or to use Jesus’ statement on forgiveness in Matthew 6:14, 15 (to cite another forgiveness statement) to insist that she forgive the lads if she ever wanted her heavenly Father to forgive her?
My sense is that in cases of severe personal injury or trauma, equally good people may respond differently. As he was being stoned to death, Stephen, reflecting sentiments uttered by Jesus on the cross, prayed: “ ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ ” (Acts 7:60, NIV). By contrast, the prophet Zechariah, dying under similar circumstances, said in his last breath: “ ‘May the Lord see this and call you to account’ ” (2 Chron. 24:21, 22, NIV). Significantly, in His litany of woes against the Jewish nation toward the end of His ministry, Jesus seemed to endorse Zechariah’s prayer, holding those Jews who were involved in His death culpable (Luke 11:51).
Forgiveness is a beautiful thing. And for my part, I cannot think of any person or situation that remains unforgiven in my book. That is a good feeling. But it probably comes from having lived a relatively sheltered life and gives me no right to pass judgment on others not so fortunate. Imagine, for example, the pain, anguish, and terror of that Jordanian mother as she watched the video of her son being burned alive by ISIS. Imagine the horror of someone who has had acid thrown in their face. Do I have any idea what either of those two experiences mean? People already experienc ing unspeakable trauma should not have to face the added stress of being confronted with the words of Jesus on forgiveness, as if the Master had cases like theirs in mind.
In the Adventist Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, the lesson for July 5, 2004, asked the question: “Can children honor parents even if the parents are abusive?” Then followed this quote from Ellen G. White: “Our obligation to our parents never ceases. Our love for them, and theirs for us, is not measured by years or distance, and our responsibility can never be set aside.”8 The juxtaposition of these two ideas made me cringe. And I imagine Ellen White would have also cringed to see it.
The way Jesus dealt with the abuse of children suggests that, for Him, forgiveness was not the preferred option in this situation. “ ‘It would be better,’ ” He said of the offender, “ ‘if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea’ ” (Matt. 18:6, NKJV).
Which raises the question: How does one apply Jesus’ words (“until seventy times seven”) in cases of sexual abuse, where a single occurrence can leave permanent psychological damage on its victim?
In his book on street people and others on the margins, researcher Robert L. Okin tells the story of a woman who, returning from a trip, was told by her four-year-old daughter that her husband’s brother had raped her—and not even in the usual manner, to put it delicately. The brother-in-law disappeared immediately thereafter and was found hanging from a tree 40 days later. “If he hadn’t hung himself,” the child’s mother said to Okin, “I would have killed him!”9
I believe Jesus would have understood that mother’s outrage.
Years ago, I read the story of a child the news media dubbed “Girl X.” When she appeared in court March, 23, 2001, one newspaper gave this description: “Raising her head and making eye movements to communicate, the 13-year-old . . . testified today about the attack in 1997 that left her severely disabled.
“She was the third witness in the trial of Patrick Sykes, 29, who is accused of raping her, beating her, and pouring roach killer down her throat in the attack at the crime-ridden CabriniGreen housing project.”10
Do we think that any of Jesus’ statements on forgiveness enjoins this victim to put up with a single additional occurrence of such horror?
In the words of Ellen White, “We are to be guided by true theology and common sense.”11 “God wants us all,” she said, “to have common sense, and He wants us to reason from common sense. Circumstances alter conditions. Circumstances change the relation of things.”12
And common sense tells us that a multitude of physical and psychological offenses exist that are so egregious, abhorrent, and emotionally damaging that they could not possibly fall within the purview of Jesus’ response to Peter nor be contemplated in His other statements on forgiveness. Offenses so ghastly that the specter of enduring them for even a second time (let alone a seventh or a seventieth) becomes unthinkable.
This means that victims experiencing unspeakable evil and tragedy should be allowed time to vent; time to grieve; time to process the enormity of what has happened to them; time to heal; time to come to forgiveness at their own pace.
And for those who, physically, are too hurt to ever let it go, we need to offer this assurance: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18, NIV).
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1 Many translations read “seventy times seven.” But the variation is immaterial to our purpose in this article.
3 Jeff Glor, “Mother of Amish School Shooter Shares Amazing Story of Forgiveness,” CBS Evening News, December 12, 2013, http://www.cbsnews.com /news/mother-of-amish-school-shooter-shares -amazing-story-of-forgiveness/.
4 Matthew 6:14, 15; 18:35; Mark 11:25, 26.
5 Julia Talanova and Laura Batchelor, “New Jersey Police: 6-Year-Old Dies a Day After Being Shot—by a 4-Year-Old,” CNN, April 10, 2013, http://www.cnn .com/2013/04/09/us/new-jersey-child-shooting /index.html.
6 Ameena Ilahi, “Acid Crimes: A Growing Crisis in Pakistan,” The Asia Foundation, October 1, 2014, http://asiafoundation.org/2014/10/01/acid-crimes -a-growing-crisis-in-pakistan/.
7 Associated Press, “5 Arrested in Turkey-Hurling Incident,” MSNBCNEWS.com, November 19, 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/6520848/ns /us_news-crime_and_courts/t/arrested-turkey -hurling-incident/#.WDpNvFwTGMw.
8 Ellen G. White, The Adventist Home (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn., 1952), 360.
9 Robert L. Okin, Silent Voices: People With Mental Disorders on the Street (Mill Valley, CA: Golden Pine Press, 2014), 92, 93.
10 Mike Robinson, “ ‘Girl X’ Testifies About Assault That Left Her Disabled,” Washington Post, March 24, 2001, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics /2001/03/24/girl-x-testifies-about-assault-that -left-her-disabled/42661661-bbb8-4fba-b9e3 -9faaeee55818/.
11 Ellen G. White, Mind, Character, and Personality, vol. 1 (Nashville, TN: Southern Pub. Assn, 1977), 148.
12 Ellen G. White, Selected Messages, bk. 3(Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), 217.