Then Peter came to Him and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.”
As stated in the previous devotion, this question doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Jesus had just given a whole block of teaching on forgiveness, beginning with an actual child who symbolizes the childlike lostness of the humble, repenting sinner. In that block of teaching, Jesus pretty clear teaches the importance of the Church being a place of forgiveness for that lost, childlike sinner. Let’s review how He was clear:
First, He says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” To “cause to sin” more accurately means “to cause to stumble in faith.” In this case, Jesus isn’t talking about tempting a child to do something wrong. He’s talking about creating a situation in which a child loses his faith. Jesus will shortly explain and expand what he means by “child” and what causing him to stumble looks like.
Second, He says, “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you.” Here is the same phrase, “cause to sin.” And here Jesus expands on the “millstone around the neck/drowned into the sea” theme. Those who cause others to sin should be cut off the body. Discussion of the body hints that Jesus is ultimately talking about the body of believers – there is no tradition outside of gnostic quacks (like Origen) of severing parts of the body because they led to temptation. He’s talking about the body of believers. If someone among the body of believers propagates a teaching or practice which keeps the “little ones” in their sin, they should be excommunicated.
Third, Jesus says, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” Here we get that jump from “little ones” to “lost ones.” That’s how “child” is expanded and explained. And not just any lost ones, but lost ones who have repented, turned their faces to the Lord, through their angels (messengers) who carry their acts of worship to the Father – we get that also from the beginning of the section, where Jesus says we must be converted and become little children. We’re also getting explanation on what “cause to sin” means. It means to remain in our lostness, to get in the way of Jesus coming to save the lost ones.
Fourth, Jesus gives the little parable of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep, concluding, “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” There is the blatant connection between lost ones and little ones.
Fifth, Jesus teaches about how to deal with the brother who sins against us. Three attempts at reconciliation should happen before he is “caused to sin,” that is, remain in his sin. First, we should go one on one with the fallen brother. Second, we take a few witnesses. Third, we take it to the church. Clearly, after the third attempt to bring a sinner to repentance, the blame for “causing this sinner to remain in his sin” is his own fault. The Church has done its due diligence, emulating the shepherd who seeks and saves that which is lost.
Sixth, Jesus teaches that the Church is the place of forgiveness, where all this activity is going on. This is the “body” which should have no one among its members “causing anyone to stumble.” This is Christ the Shepherd seeking and saving that which was lost, acting on his behalf.
Now, but way of other background, Jesus had already introduced the mystery that authority was given to men to forgive sins in Matthew 9. He demonstrated this when He healed the lame man. He said, “Son, your sins are forgiven you.” And then He proved that authority by demonstrating His divine power. Afterwards, the people glorified God “who had given such power to men,” that is, the power to forgive sins. Note, that power is given to “men,” not just Jesus.
Next bit of background. In Matthew 10 Jesus had gathered His Twelve together and authorized them to be His instruments of grace. Here he first introduced the “lost sheep” metaphor: “But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” So, whatever is to be given – like forgiveness – is to be given freely, for they themselves had received that same forgiveness.
These things, Jesus teaches later in chapter 10, are really being done by Jesus. For, as He says, “He who receives you receives Me.” Jesus is present among them. Jesus is a body, the Word made flesh. It’s antichristian to disconnect the flesh from Jesus’ spirit. If we speak of Jesus being “present” among His believers, there’s body going on. The Church is His body, manifest on earth.
Final bit of background. As Jesus had taught with the lame man, forgiveness is the true healing we need, because sin is the reason for death and disease in the first place. Can’t weed out humanity’s problems without getting at the roots! So absolution is ultimately what Jesus is building up toward. In Matthew 16, Jesus introduces the binding and loosing authority of the keys, specifically to Peter. “And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
We don’t know at this point if this is specifically about forgiveness, but in Matthew 18, our chapter we’re working with, we most certainly know: “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you that if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.”
There it all comes together. Peter, representing the Church’s ministry, is given the keys. This ministry is Christ’s bodily presence in the Church, which to receive is to receive Christ Himself. Christ Himself has already demonstrated His authority to forgive sins, and He has passed that authority onto the Twelve. He instructed them to give freely, as they themselves had been given freely. In the long buildup from Matthew 18 we’ve been contemplating – on forgiveness – we learn the power of the church to bind and loose is really to be Christ’s instrument of seeking lost, little sheep. And any attempt to diminish this gift, to hold back, to limit, or to give by measure, risks causing a lost, little sheep – one who turns to the Lord in repentance – to stumble in faith and die in his sins. And if this happens, a millstone should be put around the neck of the one who perpetuated this blasphemy.
So what does Peter, representing the Church (having first been given that authority to bind and loose and now learning what it’s used for), ask? “What limits on what you freely give should I impose?”
Jesus must have wanted to scream. Of course, He doesn’t scream, but He gives a parable that screams in its hyperboles, and has alarming foreshadowing specifically for Peter.
If we may, here’s a “reading between the lines” version of the parable of the unmerciful servant. “So, I’ve given you the keys and have already told you to freely give, and about millstones and cutting off body parts if you become stingy with grace. And now you ask me the extent of forgiveness you should pass on to the lost, little sheep who turn their face to my Father? Well, Peter, you who will deny me three times – that is, commit the worst sin ever three times – and thus incur the worst debt ever, I will forgive you three times, as often as you sinned against Me. As you head up the Church in Acts 2 and set the tone of my Church, so to speak, you had better remember how much you have been given. Freely you have received; freely give.”
Now, the usual caveats. Forgiveness isn’t absolute. It’s for those whose angels look upon the Lord’s face. To look upon the Lord’s face you have to “be converted” (like a child) toward the Lord’s face. There is something about the literal child who incarnates this “being converted,” even as Jesus places a literal child in their midst, but there is the metaphorical meaning as well. With childlike faith, like the faith of the lame man (which is nowhere indicated but merely got carried along by the others), or like the faith of the Canaanite woman, look to the Lord for salvation, look to Christ’s Church for salvation, and it will – it must – be given out, or it is not Christ’s Church.