Tough Questions and Bible Answers: Grace and Forgiveness

Tough Questions and Bible Answers:  Grace and Forgiveness

We are in a series that is looking at the Bible and working to understand some of the tough issues the Bible addresses.

In Matthew 18, Peter approaches Jesus and ponders the issue of forgiveness. Peter asks—“How many times must I forgive my brother?” Wow, this is a problem we all can relate to. How often must we forgive those who make life difficult? How many times must we tolerate being hurt?

Peter seems to have a bigger heart than I do. He goes on to say, “Shall I forgive my brother up to seven times?” While I’d like to tell everyone that I am an endless fountain of grace and mercy, the reality is I struggle in this area. I’m more a “three strikes and you’re out” kind of a person. I know I should have more patience and forgiveness. It is an area I’m working on.

It also seems like Peter was working on his forgiveness ability. While Peter’s apparent generosity in the forgiveness department catches our attention, it is the reply of Jesus that stabs at us. In reply to Peter’s seemingly generous gesture, Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:22) Wait! I don’t know about you, but if someone sins against me that many times, I’m likely to make the evening news for committing a homicide. How are we to understand this teaching of Jesus? Perhaps help and understanding reside in digging into the background of Jesus reply. Most folks do not know that Jesus was probably pulling an obscure reference into his conversation with Peter.

Permit me a brief history lesson.

We all are descendants of Adam and Eve, the Father and Mother of us all. Their first born was Cain. Cain is probably best known for being the first murderer. After Cain killed his brother Abel, he was punished by God. He was banished to become a restless wanderer on the Earth. This story is told in Genesis 4. In response to God’s discipline, Cain declares that God was being too hard. He worries that someone will find him and exact retribution, that he will be killed. God, in his mercy, tells Cain not to worry. God places a protective mark on Cain (don’t ask, we do not know what this mark is). Cain is told that whoever exacts vengeance on him will suffer seven times the vengeance themselves.

This Genesis narrative continues on with a brief story about Cain’s great-great-great grandson Lamech. It seems Lamech was a man of tremendous ego and self-worth. Lamech is the first polygamist (he had two wives). One day he returns from killing a man and declares that if Cain was to be avenged seven times, then whoever tried to avenge Lamech’s killing would suffer seventy-seven times (the same wording Jesus uses with forgiveness).

Lamech’s conversation is best understood as a taunt. Lamech was justifying his actions and ager. After all, how can Lamech avenge his own killing seventy-seven times? Lamech’s rage filled rant was about having endless anger. While we are not told what the offense to Lamech was in Genesis 4, we see an arrogant man who was filled with his own self importance. Whoever dared to cross Lamech would face swift conflict. Jesus, being the all-knowing Son of God, knew the reasoning of Lamech. Jesus is comparing Lamech’s endless need for retribution with the endless love and mercy of God.

Isn’t that what forgiveness is about? Is that not where my difficulties lie? When someone sins against us, is not our desire for retribution an attempt to even the score? When we respond negatively to others when they hurt us, who are we most like? Are we like Lamech, feeding on rage and self importance? Are we like God, who shows endless mercy and forgiveness? I find that when I am counting the times a person sins against me, I’m not really filled with grace and mercy. It is more about me. It’s more about my selfish ego. When I remember that God has shown me mercy I’m better able to show mercy as well. The ability to forgive resides in understanding that God has been infinitely merciful with me. When I bathe in God’s grace I’m able to show it to others. In a divided world, in a society that is immersed in hateful selfishness we would do well to learn this lesson of forgiveness. Keep looking up!