When Jesus used numbers to stress what He wanted His disciples to learn, and then, in His typical way, reinforced the lesson with a story, He was drawing from an ancient practice that acquired the name: Numerology - associating events with numbers and numbers with events, which has prompted some people to turn a specific number into a lucky charm or fetish, or give a number a mystical quality that ties it to some divine or sacred happening , or as in the Bible, using numbers to teach an all-important truth.
The Bible is filled with examples, with the number 7 being at the top of the list. It is repeated 287 times, from the opening chapter in Genesis when the ancient pondering of the beginnings of the heavens and the earth were set to the days of the week, building up to the seventh when God rested and stepped back to admire all that God had made, the seventh day, the day of absolute perfection, to the last book where the number seven spirals throughout the chapters, until all creations is restored to its intended wholeness and there is an eternal Sabbath.
Seven is also a combination of numbers: three for the Trinity – God as Creator, Savior, Sustainer,and the four earthly seasons – adding up to 7.
Perhaps, when Peter asked ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ he was thinking about the story of Cain murdering his brother, Abel, and the sentence God pronounced on Cain: the curse of wandering the earth for the rest of his life, which made him cry out, “I will be driven from your presence…and whoever finds me will kill me.” (Genesis 4: 13-14)
But God said, “Not so, if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.” and God put a mark on him so everyone would know not to kill him. (Genesis 4: 15-16) An unknown mark with a well-known purpose: A warning that anyone who killed him in revenge would find himself being consumed with an uncontrollable rage seven times worse than the fury that drove Cain to murder his brother.
Through today’s Gospel we hear Jesus increasing the degrees of that curse as He answers Peter’s (and our question) ‘Lord, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ with, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’
It’s not just seven multiplied to seventy, that “tithe” number – 7 - but another seven added on to intensify the curse of responding to some vicious act by striking back; a life for a life.
Acting in revenge is like drinking poison hoping that it is going to kill the other person. And yet all it does is kill us and separate us from God's love. Seventy seven times! Or, revenge is like lighting a fire with a flashback that consumes the innocent along with the guilty.
It’s a fire that can only be extinguished with Jesus’ prescribed practice of forgiveness,
which the Bible scholar, Robert MacAfee Brown labeled “the not-so-simple teachings of Jesus.”
The not-so-simple practice of forgiveness! Yet, to work at practicing it, even at times when vengeance seems to be the only way to respond, is, according to Jesus’ answer to Peter, and in our hearing, to us, how to avoid the seventy-seven times curse of revenge.
A pastor who serves as chaplain to a local police force tells of the battle between revenge and forgiveness that raged when an officer was shot and killed and the murderer was on the loose. In one officer’s words, "I was riding around filled with hatred. This criminal had killed one of my best friends. It was going to feel so good to find him and kill him. I was ready. I was focused. I had a mission. But as the hours passed, I realized how I was getting caught up in the rage and loss. I realized I was becoming, in my thinking and feelings, all that the killer was--a hateful, murdering person. I realized--'I am different. I have to be different. I am more than that. I cannot be pulled into that death-filled, hate-filled kind of existence.' He said, 'I have to be the trained officer whose duty is to protect and serve.'" (The Rev. Dr. Alex Evans, Senior pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, VA.)
At this point we may be ready to shout, “Yes, but!” and remind God of all that’s going on in this world; acts of genocide, militant groups determined to eliminate every Christian in the Middle East to start, and then on to the rest of us. Let’s be real about practicing forgiveness!
The issue that takes us back to that phrase in Peter’s question, ‘if another member of the church sins against me,’- the church. Forgiveness within the community gathered in Jesus’ name.
Early in the ministry at 6 AM on a Saturday morning when I was sleeping in, the phone rang and the voice at the other end said, “Do you believe in practicing what you preach? I answered, “Sure!” and he said, “Then don’t pick beans on Sunday!”
We had a garden beyond the cemetery that was in view of people living on the nearby street. I dressed quickly and marched up to knock on the door of the person I thought was the caller. He invited me in with a gracious welcome. My first words were, “I believed we were just talking to each other.” He didn’t have any idea of what I was talking about and it was then that I realized I had picked the wrong person and tried to stumble my out of a very awkward conversation! As I left I realized why Paul wrote the words we heard a few weeks ago: “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. “I will repay.”
The church in Rome would later read Paul’s letter which we, too, heard today, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
The community of Christ’s followers, who in being accountable to God, struggle to be forgiving to one another, knowing the world outside the church is watching those within the church, where Christians are praying that the sight they see will draw them in to stand at the foot of the cross where the words of Jesus vibrate and permeate into every human being: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23: 34)
If God were to be pictured with a calculator, the key showing the most wear would be the one imprinted with the number seven, multiplied to the count of God’s practice of grace beyond all counting, the number that makes it possible to do what at times may seem impossible – to forgive one another in the church, because, beginning in the church, we know we don’t know how to handle revenge, only forgiveness.
As we work at forgiving one another, we pray what the world sees in the church will draw them in, and finding forgiveness, be compelled to be forgiving, and “give praise to God.” Amen.
As we are about to go into the time before us and the world around us, we look to the cross of Christ, the sign of God’s forgiveness which we work to practice among ourselves, and invite other to come and join us.
If they do not come, we pray that they might be drawn in by the behavior of Christ modeled in us and in our relationships with one another.
We dedicate ourselves to that calling as we receive this Blessing:
May God bless you and keep you.
May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace…