The Apostle Peter must have felt a touch saintly when he approached Jesus asking, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Equally likely, given the manner in which he framed the question, Peter was anticipating a characteristically outlandish response from the Lord. But Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”
This dominical injunction—to forgive seventy times seven—is usually taken to be a hyperbolic response, in effect meaning, as often as the offender repents, forgive without limit. Such interpretations are not incorrect. But when one traces the ‘echoes’ of Jesus’s words in the rest of Scripture, one finds that the command means more—much more.
The depth of these particular words by the Lord can be determined through, at least, three scriptural soundings. New Testament scholars have long since perceived that Jesus understood himself to be proclaiming the Jubilee Year, notably in the so-called “Nazareth Manifesto.”(2) The Jubilee was the “seven-times-seventh year” when the guilty, the debtors, the trapped, and the handicapped were set free. The Greek word for “deliverance,” “release,” or “liberty” is also the same word for “forgiveness.”(3)
The language that Jesus uses, both in the Manifesto and in his response to Peter’s question, to forgive “seventy times seven,” reveals how he understood forgiveness to be the central operative principle and practice of the Jubilee. Jesus is in effect saying that, with him, the Jubilee has come, and that his followers are to be a Jubilee-celebrating people, both receiving and giving the gracious and gratuitous gift of the Jubilee: namely, forgiveness.
The reach of the echo, however, goes further back to the primeval history of humankind. In Genesis chapter 4, Lamech, a descendant of Cain’s, is found reciting (perhaps, even singing) to his wives a rather unromantic poem: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; you wives of Lamech listen to what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold.”(4) After Cain murdered his brother Abel, God put a mark on Cain in order to prevent the avenging of Abel’s slaying, warning that anyone who killed Cain would be avenged sevenfold. God is here not so much prescribing as God is predicting this sevenfold “law of revenge.” Lamech’s poem reveals that, within a few generations after Cain, violence and counter-violence has compounded and escalated frighteningly—seventy-sevenfold.
Jesus’s command is thus a call upon his followers to be a community that is circumscribed by a law entirely different from the law of revenge that regulates the fallen and violent order of the world. In the Lord’s command of forgiveness is the subversion and reversal of Lamech’s primordial law of revenge. As Miroslav Volf puts it, “Turning Lamech’s logic on its head, however, Jesus demanded his followers not simply to forego revenge, but to forgive as many times as Lamech sought to avenge himself.”(5) Followers of Jesus are to so live that they bear witness to the truth: the truth that the destructive—and all too predictable—injustice of mimetic violence can be overcome only through a “mimetic” rendition of the creative and unpredictable “injustice” of forgiveness.
The symbolic depth of the words “seventy times seven” is also found in its echo of the encounter between the seer Daniel and the angel Gabriel in Daniel 9.(6) In that chapter, Daniel, in exile, perceives through his study of Jeremiah’s prophecy that the time of Israel’s exile and desolation would be ending after “seventy years,” which was about the time he found himself in. This prophetic insight into prophetic foresight drives the seer to pray for God’s forgiveness of his people, manifesting it by ending their exilic suffering. In response, however, Gabriel says, that “to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness,” the “real time” decreed by God is not seventy years, but “seventy sevens.”(7)
Jesus’s interlocution with Peter, in terms almost identical to that of Gabriel’s with Daniel, discloses a profound point about forgiveness: It is through forgiveness that sin, rebellion, wrongdoing, and suffering are covered and brought to an end; it is through forgiveness that true justice and righteousness are realized. And it is Jesus who has brought about this New Age, and summons his followers to the vocation of embodying forgiveness and witnessing to its power.
Kethoser (Aniu) Kevichusa is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Nagaland, India.
(1) Matthew 18:21.
(2) See Luke 4:16-21.
(3) This word is used twice in Luke 4:18.
(4) Genesis 4:23-24.
(5) Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 121.
(6) See N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (London: SPCK, 2006).
(7) See Daniel 9:1-24.