‘Whatever amount of forgiveness you think is reasonable, square it. And then to further drive his point he adds, ‘And then times it by ten.‘ Haha! Jesus is quite the wordsmith! Even using humour to gently re-align Peter’s aim.
21Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.g
I have heard it been said more than once, that Peter intended to sound quite liberal here because the culturally acceptable level of forgiveness for Israel in Peter’s day had a threshold of three. The pharisees may have taught in the synagogues that it is Godly and wise to forgive a brother once, even twice, even three times–but a fourth time was not required to maintain the status quo of social tolerance. So Peter may have been expecting Jesus to be delightfully surprised at his prodigal forgiveness threshold.
I think Jesus was very gracious with Peter – I hope I can be so gracious as to answer so gently when my loved ones miss the point so widely.
Peter may have picked the number seven because it was significant in relation to hebrew alpha-numerics. But I don’t think that’s all he was thinking. I think Peter’s intention was to really make a statement by not only adding onto three (eg. 4 or 5), but multiplying three (3 x 2 + 1). He effectively doubled the status quo, forgiveness threshold.
Jesus gently blows Peter out of the water by offering another mathematical equation where instead of doubling the status quo – he squares Peter’s suggestion and then multiplies that by 10. Jesus doesn’t square and multiply 3 by ten, he works with Peter’s suggestion. Jesus makes a hyperbole out of Peter’s genuine suggestion. But the hyperbole is not meant to offer an exaggerated number but rather an unattainable one, by suggesting; ‘Whatever amount of forgiveness you think is reasonable, square it. And then to further drive his point he adds, ‘And then times it by ten.‘ Haha! Jesus is quite the wordsmith! Even using humour to gently re-align Peter’s aim.
Luke 17:3-4 really helps here, reminding us that during this instance, Jesus, advises us that our forgiveness is not to be contingent on a numeric threshold, but rather, our brother’s ability to repent.
As we’ve just read in the previous verses (Matthew 18:15-20), there is a time when terse forgiveness is not the answer–specifically, when our brother is 3 times determined not to repent. But in the family of faith the over-arching goal is to “gain your brother”, not by rejecting or seeking revenge or punishment for him, but by forgiving him and reminding him of the forgiveness we have in Christ Jesus who lived a perfect life so that he, in dying the death we deserved, could rise victorious over our punishment and give us fullness of life.