Matthew 18:21-35 stands in stark contrast to a particular theory prevalent in the counsel many receive, both secular and christian. The question of “how many times” is answered by many with “not enough to enable them”.
Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive his brother when he sinned against him. Seven times? That probably sounded like a fairly generous number. But Jesus is far more generous than we are. “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (v.22) By the way, the definition of that number is “countless times”.
Jesus then went into the parable of the unmerciful servant, explaining that God has forgiven us of all of our debt, and so we should do likewise to our fellow man. And just so we don’t think we jumped into the shallow end of the pool, He adds “from your heart”. That means we forgive, countless times, from the very center of our being. We forgive with our will, our emotions and our thoughts. Countless times. The same brother, the same sin.
The definition of “forgive” in this passage is to release a debt, to “let go”. How many times have we said we have “forgiven” someone, but never let go of what they did to us? We forgave with our words, but we remain angry, we continue to think about what they did, how many times they did it and why they did it. Our response to the countless times they’ve sinned against us is often to cut them out of our life, or at least out of our hearts. We punish with silence, with anger and with detachment, all while saying they are forgiven.
We are called to more than lip service. We are called to release people from the debt of their sin against us, from our hearts. And it’s hard. Being a follower of Christ is not sissy work. This passage in Matthew is not about “enabling” or “disabling”. It’s not about trying to figure out how many times is too many. It’s about forgiving, and as with everything else Jesus taught, it becomes about our own heart.
On the surface, the enablement theory sounds good, like we have the “sinner’s” best interests at heart. It alludes to the idea that if we don’t “enable”, we will somehow “disable” their sin. The problem is that we have no power to “disable” anyone from sinning. Sin has it’s beginning in the heart, and power over the human heart belongs to God alone.
I really think the enablement theory is about us, the person being sinned against. Its our “out” from the “countless times” of having to forgive someone. It’s our way of making forgiveness make sense. It’s what we’re prone to, this constant attempt to make God’s ways seem logical, to fit our “common sense” way of thinking. But He is not a common God, and if His ways made sense to us, they wouldn’t be His ways. They would be our ways.
Countless times. Over and over. Forgive. Why would Jesus command such a thing of us? Perhaps part of the answer lies in listening to the answer to a different question.
“Father, how many times are You going to forgive me for sinning against You?”