Mathematics of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35 – the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time – for September 11, 2011

“. . . how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)

In Matthew 18:21, the disciple Peter ponders forgiving another seven times. In Matthew 18:22*, Jesus challenged Peter—and therefore us—to forgive seventy-seven times.

Ah-oh. Note the asterisk by 22. Don’t race to the bottom of these words to find what it refers to . . . I’ll deal with it now. Almost every Bible has a footnote or asterisk linked to Matthew 18:22 because different ancient manuscripts, and different ways of interpreting Greek, lead to a different number. Instead of forgiving another seventy-seven times, Jesus may have exhorted Peter to forgive seven times seventy. Gulp. Take a breath. Now do the math. How many times should I be prepared to declare, “I forgive you?”

7 x 70 = 490


10 down, 480 to go.

Jesus must have been kidding, right? He exaggerated, used hyperbole. It’s all about shock value.

In the faithful mathematics of forgiveness, whether the answer to Peter’s question is 77 or 490, there’s always a crucial, single number at the start . . .


Me. You. One nation. A corporation. Every giving or receiving of forgiveness will begin because an individual or an institution steps forward and truthfully says, “I forgive you.”

And yet, if one person doesn’t begin . . .

*     *     *

Few films have touched me as deeply as Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992). It succeeds as entertainment and struggles with theology. Near the beginning of UNFORGIVEN, a terrible thing happens. A cowpoke, in town for R&R, visits a whore for her services. She laughs at the size of his penis. I don’t recall if she laughed out loud, or instead smiled or momentarily rolled her eyes. Or maybe she hooped and hollered, which reverberated from the brothel to the blacksmith shop, from the hotel to the livery stable.

It doesn’t matter. The cowpoke became enraged when he felt she slighted his slight member. He slashed her face.

What if the cowpoke forgives her before the first cut to her face? Would the “story” end there?

It does not end. UNFORGIVEN is an escalation of stubbornness, revenge, eye-for-an-eye blindness and murder. At each step, offering forgiveness and accepting it could have prevented the next awful step

How many times do I forgive? Four hundred and ninety is an excellent answer. But “once” is also a darn good answer too often ignored.

*     *     *

I write this words about Matthew 18 and UNFORGIVEN and the holy math of faith shadowed by the Sunday when this scripture is read this year: the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. Here we are, ten years later. Worship services will focus on that worst of days. Cities and villages across the United States will offer simple or elaborate events to mark that worst of days. People will ask, whether in a New York Times editorial or during a coffee break at work, “Where were you that day? What do you remember?”

What do you remember from THAT day that influences your today?

Ten years ago I gathered with other clergy and planned an interfaith worship service as a response to the tragedy. We created a way for our community to mourn, reflect and—as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Hindus and more—to open our wounded hearts to God, Allah, the Divine Wind, the One Whose Name Is Not Spoken, and so many other ways that we faithful, foolish humans seek truth from beyond ourselves. I volunteered to work with one other person to make sure we had an idea of how many were killed on that worst of days, what faiths they represented and what countries they called home as the buildings fell and the planes crashed and the whole world shuddered. Though too soon to know the names of those who died, we wanted to be specific about the depth and breadth of the tragedy.

My partner was Muslim. Within hours of September 11, 2001, I stood beside a gentle man—an Arab-American with a wife and children and deep sadness—to help a city-wide congregation mourn. We longed to help them (and us) sense at least a hint of a hint of humanity’s grief and God’s eternal hope.

What does this have to do with the mathematics of forgiveness? For me, everything. Why do we hate? Why do we easily grasp a weapon? Why do people crash planes into buildings? Why do we wage war and pretend it brings peace? Why do people claim their faith is the only faith, their way the only way, their answer the best answer?

I stood shoulder-to-shoulder, heart-to-heart with one person, a Muslim, and humbly cast forth forgiving, healing words.

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  1. Actually, according to comments I’ve seen on the book of Amos, in Biblical reconning , seven was the number which meant “forever” or “always”. Thus, by stressing the number seven many times over, he is simply saying “You always forgive!”.

    1. As I understand it, you are right. In general (again, as I understand it) the same goes for the number 40 . . . it symbolically represented a looooong time during “Biblical days.” Some numbers are numbers . . . but often they represent more.

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