Forgive Your Brother 77 Times

Forgive Each OtherPreparation

Prior to presenting this celebration of the Lord’s Supper, sing a hymn about mercy or forgiveness, for example “Purer in Heart, O God”.

Introduction

In Matthew 18, Jesus is confronted with the very common question on how much patience and mercy we need to have with each other, especially our own family members. I have two sons, ages 11 and 6. And although they get along pretty well, somehow seem to get in each other’s hair multiple times a day. And the more they play together, the more they will likely get into a conflict.

Scripture

Matthew 18:15, 21-22

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Frustration

In verse 15, Jesus says to go and deal individually with your brother when he sins against you. So you can imagine how the disciples are feeling. We have the brothers Zebedee – James and John. And at least one of them is probably a bit frustrated at Jesus’ challenge. “But you don’t know my brother James. The guy is a royal pain! I’ve had to deal with him since he started stealing my ‘superheroes of the Bible’ cards when he was 3.”

But then it is Peter who actually speaks up. He is not only frustrated at his brother, but he expresses it to Jesus. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the frustration, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother…7 times?” And you can tell he had put some thought into this. For he uses the number “seven”, which was and still is a very holy number to the Jews.

Peter is feeling pretty good about himself. If “seven” is the holy number assigned to God himself in the Holy Scriptures, and even God has his limits, then “seven” is a lot of patience – with this bothersome sibling of mine.

So Jesus responds with another (quote-unquote) “holy number”. But instead of referencing God, he references one of the evil anti-heroes of the Bible, Lamech. Lamech was the great-great-grandson of the first villain in the Bible, Cain. Cain murdered his brother out of jealousy. And instead of taking his life, God banishes him for the rest of his life. And not only does God have mercy by sparing his life, he also promises safety to Cain – whoever takes Cain’s life will suffer vengeance from the Lord himself seven times over (Genesis 4:15).

So four generations later, the vile nature of the murderer Cain has been passed down through the family line (Isn’t that always how it is – the vices of the father so easily get passed down to the children). So we find that Lamech has not only killed someone, but he has chosen to take the life of a fellow for simply injuring him.

Not only that, but Lamech was the first polygamist in the Bible. He broke from God’s plan for one man and one woman to come together and be one flesh in a holy relationship that would be the pre-image of the holy relationship between Jesus, the groom, and the church, His bride.

Lamech thought he understood God

So listen to Lamech’s unconscionable boast as well as his arrogant promise in Genesis 4:23-24 “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.”

This man is so hardened by sin, that he feels no remorse for his murder of a young man. He is even arrogant enough to quote Jehovah God – and then take it one step higher. In essence he is saying that God even supports murder. “If God protected the murderer Cain, my great-great-grandfather, then let him avenge me even more!” This man is a prideful, murderous polygamist – who seems to have convinced himself that God condones, even supports, his evil actions. This is the kind of guy who you don’t want to stand next to – out of fear that god might just strike him down with a lightning bolt.

Twists and Turns

So why does Jesus pull out this well known Old Testament villian on Peter? Like Lamech, Peter refers to the holy number 7, the number of completeness, in reference to his lifestyle. Lamech knew enough about God to even quote Him. Yet he 100% missed the heart of God – a heart to forgive and show mercy, a heart of second chances. Instead of Lamech focusing on the mercy that God had towards his great-great-grandfather Cain, Lamech focuses on how God protected Cain. And he twists that grace and mercy into thinking that God condones evil.

So in Matthew 18, Peter hears the challenge of Jesus on what to do when his brother sins against him. So Peter immediately uses his vast Bible knowledge and lands on the holy number 7, the number of completeness in the Jewish mind.

And I can see him playing this scenario in his mind. “So if my brother Andrew plays a prank on me before breakfast and then I confront him and he apologizes, then that’s the first offense. Then he trips me on the way somewhere. That’s two. Then over lunch, he grabs the last potato even though he saw me eyeing it. That’s three. And so on until he gets to number seven. And now Peter’s thinking, “Ya know, that takes a pretty patient, graceful person to reach seven. And since 7 is the huly number of completeness, that’s probably enough.”

And before he can think further, he blurts it out, “So Jesus, if my brother sins against me, how much do I have to forgive him? Seven times, right? It’s seven isn’t it!”

And Jesus pulls out this well-known story about the evil man, Lamech, and uses it to instruct Peter. See, as Lamech strove for a vengeance that far exceeded completeness, Peter you must strive for a rightesousness that far exceeds completeness. As Lamech considered his life worth the life of seventy-seven other lives, so you must stretch your patience seventy-seven times.

And as Lamech thought he understood God, yet was twisted in this thinking, you, Peter, do not know the heart of God. You are twisted in your thinking! If you think you “get” God, then think again. If you think you know the limits of God’s grace, then think again.

As the prophet Isaiah says in 40:13, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord?” Jesus reminds Peter of this, and He reminds you and me of this.

Upward Call

While Lamech wanted to protect himself and avenge others 77 times,
     Christ turns it around and says
     we need to protect others 77 times
     from our vengeance! (Read this sentence twice)

Isn’t it ironic how we can know our Bibles, be spiritual people, sit at the feet of Jesus, use our Bible knowledge to reason, yet we can drift into Peter’s way of thinking – and thoroughly miss the heart of God, a heart of compassion, patience, forgiveness and second chances.

So the next time you lose our patience, thinking that “surely God understands me”, think again.

Bread and Wine

So as we thank God for bread and wine, let’s praise the Lord for how Jesus truly is the Way – the way to God’s mind and heart. He is the path to understanding the limitless mercy of our Father in heaven.

Prayer

Lord, we want to know the scriptures. We seek to grasp the truth. Yet we know that we can so easily twist the scriptures to our own benefit. Help us to have the humility that never assumes that we really understand you.

Please grant us the heart that Jesus speaks of here; a heart of patience; a heart that resembles your heart. Each of us sins against you more than seven times a day. Thank you that seven is not the standard for you. You showed your standard on the cross, and we thank you for it. We pray this in the name of Jesus, Amen.

Reference

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus – by Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg, P38f

Below: The hymn “Purer in Heart”

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