The Math of Forgiveness; Jesus + Lamech = ?

Today I wanted to talk about a passage that has absolutely confused and puzzled many pastors, teachers and Bible commentary writers.  It has to do with a fascinating discussion between Jesus and Peter in Matthew 18:22.

Peter asks, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?  Up to seven times?”

Jesus responded, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

This passage seems to have baffled biblical scholars for a very long time and raise all sorts of interesting questions.  Do you keep track and not forgive someone 78 times?  Why would he say exactly 77?  The footnotes in my Bible say that Jesus actually meant “seventy times seven,” or 490 times?  Which is it, 77 or 490?  Is it possible to make any sense out of this?

As we’ve seen before, Jesus absolutely loved the Hebrew Bible (Christian OT), and quoted from it frequently.  You can typically gain a great deal of understanding on what Jesus was teaching by reading through the OT passage he was quoting.  In this case, we know that the phrase “seventy-seven times” is used only one other place in the Hebrew Bible, in Genesis 4:24.  This passage is the ancient song of Lamech.  Lamech is a descendant of the Biblical character Cain; and Cain is most famous for murdering his own brother, Abel.

Genesis 4:24 reads, “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.”

Seven is a significant biblical number to the ancient Hebrews.  It represented completeness (7 days of creation).  For Lamech, his desire for vengeance exceeded even completeness.  He wanted to take vengeance far in excess of seven times, seventy-seven times to be exact.

Once we understand this context, we can clearly see what Jesus was trying to teach us.  We need to be the exact opposite of Lamech.  As Lois Tverberg says in her excellent book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How The Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith, “We should be Lamech’s polar opposite, making it our goal to forgive as extravagantly and completely as possible.

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