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.”
In our close relationships, we are very aware of the number of slights, injustices, betrayals, and debts we have forgiven or let pass without retribution. If pressed to recount them, we would not be at a complete loss, though we might laugh at the idea of numbering them. These moments are as bright and burning to us as our sense of being injured or mistreated was. Insofar as our minds and hearts are experts at the manner and the moment in which we were wronged by others, it is not so absurd, perhaps, that Peter would ask how many times one must forgive his brother. Even if he does not mean it precisely, he surely means that being wronged is a precise pain. No injury and no injustice done to us escapes our notice. We count them all.
But why do we count them? Why do we add them up and meditate on them? It seems this counting is a form of control. Injury, we imagine, is quantitative: identifiable, distinct, economic. We weigh the debts we are owed and repay or withhold accordingly. We add and subtract, deciding how much we should or should not invest in, treat kindly, or trust people in our lives. This is our discrete form of justice, our way of re-ordering life when it feels like it has spun out of control and betrayed us.
Interestingly, Jesus’ response to Peter is not to say that it is absurd to be so aware of the injuries or injustices done to oneself. Jesus does not sweep away the notion of counting slights and meting out appropriate punishment or forgiveness. He simply says more. He says God has counted every sin precisely, ignored no slight, no injury, no act of rebellion. And after ignoring no injustice, he has precisely forgiven each one. In other words, as disciples, our attention to injustice is not out of place as long as our attention to forgiveness is just as exacting. For if my brother sins against me eight times and I forgive him seven times, I have still taught him a lesson; I am still in control.
To forgive is to surrender our desire to control someone else. By forgiving we surrender the right to shape and order the lives of others according to our sense of justice rather than God’s. We do this because God’s justice has already come to us in the mercy of Christ, who suffered every sin of ours exactly, and forgave each one completely. By forgiving we acknowledge that our sense of justice is not God’s sense of justice, and for that we are eternally, precisely, grateful.
Lord, show us where, and with whom, our accounts are imbalanced. Show us those people, both friends and enemies, family members and strangers, who we have not forgiven precisely. Teach us to forgive this way, so that we are no longer controlled by our desire to control others. For we pray this in his name, Amen.