21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church[a] sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven[b] times. - Matthew 18:21-22 (NRSV)
This exchange between Jesus and Peter found in the Gospel of Matthew is one of the most
oft-repeated scriptures. Most people believe it to be an instruction about how much or how often we are to forgive others. But on further study of scripture, we see that Jesus was not limiting forgiveness to a specific number of times – or to members of the church. That number (sometimes recorded in varying versions of the Bible as "seventy times seven" or 490 times) borders on being astronomical in Biblical times; they had no supercomputers and rarely had the call to calculate beyond their immediate needs. Therefore, most scholars believe that Jesus may indeed have been talking about always forgiving. Besides, our brothers reside outside the walls of the church as well as inside them.
Christians continually seek spiritual growth. A result is the development of a forgiving heart. It takes focus to engage this skill in our world today, but it is a natural consequence of spiritual development that it is available to us. The capacity to respond to slights and hurts (both inconsequential and serious) with a forgiving spirit is cultivated on purpose – and it is very likely connected to learning from God how to forgive ourselves for the wrongs we have done. It is possible because the Spirit of God lives within us, providing the ability to offer mercy, just as God grants immeasurable mercy to us. In the light of Christ's great sacrifice on our behalf, we can forgive with grace.
We are not asked to accept harm from others, but to learn to separate the sin from the sinner and to set healthy boundaries grounded in love. Real forgiveness is about healing, which then becomes available to the forgiver as well as to the forgiven.
As we study and pray, let us ask ourselves how we can foster forgiveness in our lives and world this Lent. Consider well the ramifications, as goodness is like a pebble tossed into a pond: it ripples as it radiates outward, reaching further than the point of impact might indicate. As we toss pebbles of mercy into the pond may God bless all who are reached.