‘If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says ‘I repent,’ forgive him.’ (Luke 17:3b-4)
I have always found this verse to be a bit rich and pastorally insensitive. In fact this whole idea of what appears to be unconditional forgiveness seems to be a big ask – and it is not only mentioned here in Luke.
In the gospel of Matthew the disciple Peter asks Jesus ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’ and Jesus answers ‘not seven times, but seventy-seven times’!
Here is my problem. Sin hurts. In fact great harm is caused when someone sins against another. The person who does the sinning abuses the person they sin against in ways that may have long and lasting consequences. That is not right. It is unfair. It is not just. And Jesus then says – forgive them!
So what I read then is that the injured party here is called upon to do and act in such a way that lets the offending party off scott-free – and in fact, repeatedly.
What do I say to the woman who has been raped? What do I say to the child who has been abused by a pedophile? What do I say to the parent who has just lost a child because someone drank too much and then drove? What do I say to a business partner who has lost everything by an arson attack? What do I say to a nation who has been terrorized? Forgive?! Be ready to forgive repeatedly – as many as seventy seven times if need be!
Help me understand.
I have seen ads on TV for ‘Revenge’. The premise seems to be that a young girl was betrayed and her family taken from her. She grows up and sets out to right the wrongs by seeking revenge against those who took her family.
Maybe this is the answer to sin! When anyone sins against us, let’s take revenge!
It might make for good TV, but revenge is as much sin as the crime that was first committed. No, what we want is justice! Now we have a question – who is it that can best determine what is just?
Friends this is where I think what Jesus teaches in Luke 17 can be helpful. The forgiveness that Jesus calls for in verse 3 is in the context of the abhorrent sin of verses 1-2. Jesus has made the point that sin is bad – in fact when a person sins it would be better for them to have been thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck than it would be for them to sin against another’ Sin is bad. The consequence for sin is in fact death.
So he calls on Christians to avoid sin – and further when they see sin in others to rebuke them so that they don’t share a serious fate. Why is this – because God judges sin?
Forgiveness does not undo sin!
Think about – just in case you missed it. Forgiveness does not undo sin!
Sin is dealt with in a different way – by death.
The way that God deals with sin, is to send his son to die. He who had no sin, died as if he did sin – so that those who do sin might not experience death.
Friends, it is only in this context that forgiveness can be understood. When sin is dealt with, forgiveness can be offered. True forgiveness is only truly offered by Jesus.
So, if Jesus calls us to forgive repeatedly, then we must. But we can do that (as hard as it may be) bearing in mind some keys truths:
- We are all sinners – so all deserve death.
- Jesus died for us – to deal with our sin.
- Jesus chose to forgive – despite our sin.
- Jesus calls us to forgive others who sin against us – so we should.
But we can also forgive knowing that:
- Our forgiveness of others does not undo their sin against us.
- We are called to forgive, not to forget.
- As we forgive, we model what Christ did for us – despite the sin against us.
Don’t doubt the seriousness of sin. Don’t doubt that the consequences for sin are severe.
But equally don’t doubt that Jesus death is sufficient to deal with both the seriousness and consequence of sin – of others as well as ourselves.
In that light and only in that light – forgive.