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Friday, August 17, 2012

Forgive how many times?

You know, for the most part, the Bible is pretty practical.  It lays out sound advice on how to make financial decisions such as the borrower becoming slave to the lender (Proverbs 22:7).  We find instruction in how to have a solid family life such as it taking wisdom to build a house and understanding to set it on a firm foundation (Proverbs 24:3).  We also find the warnings of things we should avoid because they will be our "undoing" - things like not interfering with good people's lives as it may end up with us flat on our face (Proverbs 24:15-16).  Yet, there are many questions we just don't seem to find the "straight" answers to with a whole lot of ease.  Jesus spent about three years teaching his disciples as he made his way to the cross.  In that period of time, he laid out all kinds of truth.  Some of it stumped the crowds, but the disciples got it.  Other times, the disciples were just as bewildered as the crowds!  One day, Peter finds the courage to ask a question which had probably been "niggling" at him for a while.

At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, "Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?"  Jesus replied, "Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.  (Matthew 18:21-22 The Message)

You know Peter was probably pretty proud of himself with suggesting that he go beyond forgiving his brother or sister just ONE time and extending this forgiveness to the seventh offense.  I can just see him now - kind of looking around at his peers, all delighted with his "spiritual insight" into how much God "values" forgiveness.  Then, as quickly as he asks the question and suggests this answer, Jesus bursts his bubble!  Imagine his surprise when Jesus announces, "Nope, how about 490 times, Peter?"  Now, don't read more into this than what Jesus intended.  He was not suggesting a literal number, so as for us to keep a little tally book indicating how many times we had forgiven an individual - then at the "point of no return" they are cut off from our forgiveness forever.

Jesus was showing Peter (and us) the infinite side of God's forgiveness.  He was suggesting the principle of being long-suffering.  Now, some of us translate this as "suffering long".  Jesus was suggesting the idea of enduring injury, trouble, or provocation long AND patiently.  It is the idea of endurance which probably trips us up the most.  When we are faced with injury - we have a tendency to not want to experience that too often!  When involved in trouble at the hand of another - we want to give a little of it back to them!  When provoked - it takes everything inside of us to not respond with some type of anger!  True?  I don't think I am in this alone - I have a whole lot of companions who struggle with this whole idea of forgiving much and often.

In fact, we want to have some "finite" point when we just say, "You just hit my last nerve and no more 'Mr. Nice Guy'.  From now on, you better watch your back!"  We have much to learn in this arena of being forgiving, don't we?  So, how do we get there?  I am not sure, but if we look at this scripture in context, you will see it comes just after Jesus has answered another question for the disciples.  The question posed, "Who gets the highest position in your kingdom, Jesus?"  His answer - an object lesson.

He takes a small child from the crowd, holds him close and then begins to teach the disciples about the importance of seeing things in God's kingdom through the eyes of a child.  He starts with the concept of "starting over".  Not just any arbitrary point of starting over, but he tells them to return to square one and start over like small children (vs. 2-5).  He points them back to the elementary things in life - the simple, or rudimentary stuff.  What is a small child like?  Aren't they curious, willing to explore new things, seeing things for the first time through eyes of wonder?  I think Jesus may have just been referring to this way of viewing things as God views them - with a willingness to explore them the way we have never done before - through the eyes of wonder!  He is probably saying it is important for us to get the basic stuff before we try to move onto the harder stuff!  There is an "order" to learning - both physically and spiritually.

Then Jesus points out several key features of a child.  They are trusting.  It is a simple trust - uncomplicated with all the stuff we tend to "build trust" upon as adults.  They don't keep an "account" - to them, the "history" doesn't matter as much because each day brings a new chance to start over.  Think back to being a small child - didn't you start fresh each day?  You awoke, did your few chores, then charged out into the yard to find your friends.  Before long, you'd be in a game of tag, or running cars through dirt roads you'd created with your hand in some imaginary "town".  If you had a falling out over some particular toy, or who'd be the leader in some imaginary game of war, tomorrow would bring a new day.  Jesus adds to his teaching about this child, telling the disciples (and us) to not expect hard times will never come - in fact, when they come, he warns us to not make them worse by holding onto the things we'd like to be angry and bitter about.  

Maybe this is how we are expected to model forgiveness.  Perhaps Jesus was suggesting more about how we don't allow the stuff from yesterday to muddle up our today than he was us keeping an account of offenses.  To Peter's question (and to ours) he simply points to the child.  In learning to face the new day with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, maybe we will see less of the offense of yesterday and more of the possibility of today.  Each new day is a day of wonder when it is squarely placed in God's hands!