The Mathematics of Forgiveness

Just how deep does forgiveness go? Steve Musser and I got into a very good text discussion this last week with someone on this subject. The question we were asked about came from when Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness. “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” (Matthew 18:21-22) The question was – is Jesus putting a qualifier to forgiveness?

            It’s really a very good question and reflects the fact that this person was looking at the wording, instead of just skimming over what is to many a very familiar passage. Jesus’ words appear to be very matter-of-fact – almost mathematical. “With the ‘a + b = c’ of your forgiving heart, c = 7. However, with a truly forgiving heart, c = 77.”

It actually gets even more mathematical when you look at the Greek. In the original language of the passage, you find the Greek word ἕως (heōs) three times. This improper preposition means “as far as” or “as many as”. You can find it translated in Peter’s question – “As many as seven times?” However, it is also found twice in Jesus’ reply. Unfortunately, most translations don’t include it, simply assuming that it will be understood in Jesus’ words (in fact, only the NASB and the KJV translate the “as far as” – the CSV translates one of the two). So, Jesus’ reply should read “I do not say to you as many as seven times, but as many as seventy-seven times”, which alters our equation. Now it should look like “With the ‘a + b ≤ c’ of your forgiving heart, c ≤ 7. However, with a truly forgiving heart, c ≤ 77.” Seventy-seven is put forth as a max value, with anything under that being within the proper range.

Bored yet? Let‘s set the math aside for a moment. While it could certainly appear grammatically (and mathematically) that Jesus is creating a range, He’s actually just having some word fun with Peter. He’s using hyperbole to make His point, while possibly taking a good-natured jab at His friend. A hyperbole is just a rhetorical device where exaggeration is used to make a point. What Jesus is saying here is, “Wow, Peter! Seven whole times? Pretty impressive. But you want to have a really forgiving heart? Then forget seven – try seventy-seven!” His whole point is that there is no limit to forgiveness. We know this because the first, second, and third rules of biblical interpretation are context, context, and context. All we need to do is look at the rest of Scripture to see that there is no limit to the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of our God. Therefore, there should be no limit to the grace, mercy, and forgiveness that we give to others.

This struck me as I was reading this morning in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just met a man who was possessed by a boatload of demons who had their own little tribal name of Legion. They were treating their human host quite shabbily – throwing him into fits, forcing him to cut himself with stones, making him live naked out amongst the tombs. But as soon as Jesus walked up, these demons knew they were busted. So, they start begging for mercy. Mark says that they desperately wanted Jesus to not send them away from the place (Mark 5:10). Luke gets a little more specific – “And they begged Jesus repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.” (Luke 8:31) As an alternative destination, they pleaded for Jesus to send them into a nearby herd of pigs.

Here were a group of demons pleading with Jesus – the very God that they were working against. Their whole life’s work was about drawing people away from the salvation, love, peace, and hope that come through a relationship with their Savior and Lord. If they had the power, they would have destroyed Jesus on the spot. But they didn’t have that kind of power. In fact, standing there before Jesus they were utterly powerless. I would bet that everyone one of us would take that opportunity to get rid of the demonic Legion consortium once and for all. But not our compassionate Lord. Rather than giving them what they deserve, He granted their request. He had mercy on them. He released them to the pigs – good for the possessed man, good for the demons, bad for the pigs.

If our Lord will show mercy to a band of demons, how much more will He show mercy to you and me? His forgiveness is not limited to seven times or even seventy-seven times – it is a bottomless well. Anytime we feel like we’ve gone too far and that God is done with us, we just need to follow the example of the great prophet Jeremiah. When he was at the point where he felt all hope was gone, he remembered the following truth, and this is what brought him hope. 

“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases;

                        his mercies never come to an end;

            they are new every morning;

                        great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:21-22)