Matthew (Part 28) - Seventy Times Seven
Matthew 18 instructs us on how to approach some fellow Christian who has sinned against us. We pursue that Christian in love just as Christ pursued the lost sheep. If that one who sinned has no interest in love relationship and reconciliation, even to the point of standing against his/her entire Christian community, that one is regarded as outside the community of faith.
But what if that erring one repents? What if that lost sheep desires to return to the fold? Of course, the answer is that again like the good shepherd, we welcome that one back. The priority is restored relationship—not redress for injury, not punishment. God takes care of sin. We must concern ourselves with our relationships. So we mend the rift. And then? The next day that same person strikes again. Another sin occurs—another relationship rending. But we talk again. Repentance comes again. Relationship is restored again. But the next day…. How often do we keep doing this? That question seems to have come up. In Luke 17:3-4 (apparently a parallel passage of the same conversation) Jesus instructs his disciples to forgive repeatedly. In fact, he mentions seven times. Back in Matthew 18, we see Peter picking up on Jesus’ comment of “seven times,” and, like any good legalist, attempts to make this a standard rule: “Okay, Lord, so you’re saying that if my brother sins against me I should forgive him up to seven times, right? He gets seven free passes—that’s what you said, right?” (Matthew 18:21, Salter’s Dynamic Equivalent). Jesus destroys the legalist intent by replying, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (18:22, back to ESV). Many scholars now believe that the Greek there for seventy times seven (hebdomēkontakis hepta) really may intend “seventy-seven.” Either way the meaning is the same—don’t count, just forgive. The principle is that mending relationship is of utmost importance.
We all know the phrase “to forgive is to forget.” Well, that may not quite be true. We should forgive—from the heart, carrying no anger, acrimony, or bitterness. But if the person who wronged you did so from some weakness of character, we should take that character trait into consideration in future encounters. If this person begs a loan from me for some family need and then gambles it away, he may come to me repentant. And I should forgive—completely. But that forgiveness does not mean that I should give him additional money under the same circumstances. In other words, I can still help him, but not in the same manner of complete trust because I know his weakness (especially if he has done this more than once).
Jesus ends this discussion with a parable about a servant who owed his king a great sum. Ten thousand talents is equivalent to 200,000 years’ wages for a laborer—so it is quite a sum. The king shows mercy and forgives the debt. But after receiving forgiveness, the servant displays an unforgiving attitude toward those who owe him a far lesser debt. We recognize immediately the wrong of this servant who having received forgiveness does not incorporate the lesson in his own heart. Of course, the parable is meant to teach us that the forgiveness extended to us by our God should instill in us an attitude of mercy and forgiveness to others. Again, we should imitate Christ.
Chapter 19 opens with another lesson in the same context of relationship priority. Jesus and his fellow travelers cross to the main highway south on the east side of the Jordan. He is making his way toward Jerusalem and his sacrifice. Pharisees have come to trap him in his words so that they may lessen his influence among the people. They present a question that they’ve reasoned will harm Jesus no matter how he answers. They ask whether a man can divorce his wife for any reason. If Jesus answers yes, they’ll accuse him of disregard for God’s established marriage relationship. If he answers no, they’ll accuse him of disregarding Moses’ instruction.
Jesus is quick to answer no. He draws on the Genesis account of the establishment of marriage as the pinnacle of human relationship—a relationship by God’s image-bearers that reflects the relationship within the Trinity itself. The Pharisees immediately accuse him through their question of disregard for Moses: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (19:7). Jesus’ answer provides a remarkable revelation of the working of God. He tells them that the command of Moses came because of the hardness of their hearts. God establishes laws based on the sin of humankind? Yes, he does. This does not, however, reverse the intention of the marriage relationship.
As an example, consider a masterpiece painting hung in an art gallery. The gallery owner/keeper commands that the artwork remains on the wall not to be taken down so that it may be seen, may be enjoyed, and may instruct the gallery visitors. If the artist approaches his painting and slashes at it with a knife, cutting the canvas to shreds, the gallery keeper may issue a new command to take it down based on the evil of the artist. It no longer serves its purpose. Its purpose has been destroyed. Marriage is like that. If the marriage is torn to shreds by the evil of a spouse (Jesus uses the example of sexual infidelity—an attack on the pinnacle point of reflection of the oneness of God), God says the marriage has lost its purpose—it has been destroyed—it may be dissolved. But that occurred because of sin. God’s ideal is that marriages remain intact. That relationship becomes more important than the individual concern.
We must understand that in the male-dominated society of NT times, the man lived based on what was best for him. He bought and sold land based on his needs. He acquired animals based on his need of milk, clothing, and food. He took a wife based on his needs. When he found any of these possessions to diminish in how they satisfied him, he put them away. But Jesus argues that this attitude is wrong. The man should give up his individual need for the sake of the marriage. That is love—self sacrifice for the benefit of others. The relationship is more important.
The disciples are stunned. This thought reverses the status quo—the place where their thinking was settled. They respond in utter amazement by saying, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (19:10). And Jesus implies agreement to this principle. Yes, if a man cannot maintain the priority of his marriage, it is better that he not marry. This emphasis on the sacred bond of the marriage relationship must be maintained. But not marrying is for those who have another purpose. They may be eunuchs either from birth (deformity) or made that way (castration). Or they may have a call in life for a God-given purpose that must be a priority over all else. (We may think of some mission work in which the demand of a marriage would interfere with the demand of the work.) Christ says that if you marry, the marriage relationship must take priority. If you believe that you must have your particular call as priority, do not marry, or in the words of the text, “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (19:12). Making themselves eunuchs is not a physical act but rather the decision to deny themselves the blessings of marriage for another life purpose. So the teaching of this passage is not a teaching on reasons for divorce; it is a teaching about relationship. Maintaining right relationships—with God and with others—is paramount in kingdom living.