Based on Matthew 18:21-35

In biblical writing, numbers are not used accidentally. Each has special significance; each number has its own meaning. In order to appreciate this conversation between Peter and Jesus, we need to know something of these numbers.

The number seven is the perfect number. Whatever you have equal to seven cannot be improved upon--it is perfect. The number ten is the number of fulfillment. Anything that is ten or a multiple of ten is complete.

Therefore, when Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive his brother seven times, he is asking Jesus "Should I be perfect in my forgiveness?" One might expect Jesus to answer "yes", but he doesn't. He tells Peter "no, you should not be perfect--you must be more than perfect." That, in and of itself, is not so startling until we take a closer look at what Jesus really says. Jesus' response is that Peter should forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven times. That is the perfect number (seven), multiplied by the number of fullness (10), multiplied by the perfect number again. Jesus takes it to the level of absurdity.

It seems clear that Jesus is telling us that forgiveness is not optional for the Christian--it is our way of life. Forgiveness is the first work of the Christian--even before witness. It is so central to who and what we are, that there is no circumstance in our lives for which we are entitled to withhold forgiveness. Think, for a moment, of the most horrendous crime you can imagine. Jesus commands that even that be forgiven. Sound difficult?

Over the years, I have often taught this kind of forgiveness, and people have told me that it is unreasonable and impossible for a human being to do this. I don't think so. I believe that each of us is capable of this kind of forgiveness--but not without Jesus. Here we are in the middle of Advent, preparing for the coming of the Lord. Yet we cannot live as Jesus teaches. Perhaps the key lies in the ability to recognize Jesus in others. Since Jesus will not be born again on December 25th, his coming takes place in each one of us. We must see Jesus in each other and be Jesus for each other. When that "advent" takes place in our hearts, we will be able to forgive.

Here is a real letter that expresses in a wonderful and personal fashion Jesus' command to forgive. A woman in Minnesota wrote it just a few days after her husband was cruelly and senselessly murdered. It appeared as an open letter in the newspaper:

"During the past three days my grief and desolation have been eased and comforted by the love and faith of so many wonderful friends and relatives. But in the midst of all of this and especially in the quiet moments, my thoughts keep turning to you three. You may feel that you are men, but to me you are just boys like my own sons. And I wonder to whom you are turning for comfort and strength and reassurance.

I suppose I will never know what motivated your actions that night, but if the shots were fired out of sheer panic, my heart aches for you and I wish there were only some way I could help you in what you must be suffering now. If hate made you pull that trigger, I can only pray that you can come to know the love of God that fills the heart and leaves no room for hate. If you were under the influence of drugs, please for my sake and your own, don't waste your lives too. Get help and rid yourselves of that stuff.

Please, if you see this, find a church some place where you can be alone and read this again. Know that God forgives you and that my family and I forgive you. Then go out and make something worthwhile out of the rest of your lives."

This coming week I would like to challenge each of us to make our Advent complete. I would like each of us to seek out and forgive one person with whom we are at odds. Choose someone who has seriously offended you. Recognize in this person the presence of Jesus. That will most likely be difficult. It may be even more difficult to be the presence of Jesus for this other person. Yet, only through this kind of "advent" will we be able to live as Jesus has commanded--as people of forgiveness and healing.