Jesus’ disciple Peter once asked Jesus if he, Peter, should forgive someone seven times. Peter was on to something here. Peter was thinking about repentance the right way, that proper repentance will likely require multiple applications of repentance. (See Matthew 18:21)
Peter is thinking about forgiveness from the perspective of the person who has been hurt. This week we are talking about repentance, and repentance normally applies to the person who has committed the hurt. But repentance can sometimes apply to the person who has been hurt. How so? We all know well how being hurt can lead us to becoming angry. Anger is neutral, but anger often leads the hurt one to do some hurting of their own.
Imagine a person hurts you. Then they repent. You work to overcome your desire to hurt them back, meaning you might need to repent as well. You work to restore the relationship, and rather than taking hurtful revenge, you forgive. Then at some later point, the person hurts you again. And they repent again. This time you think, “Geesh, you hurt me twice. I really want to hurt you back. But no, I repent of my vengeful spirit, and I forgive.” The relationship is restored again. Then they hurt you a third time. At this point, it’s “three strikes and you’re out” for most people.
But Peter takes it up a notch. He knows how relationships work, how people, even people who love one another, can hurt each. Peter knows this because Peter is married. So he asks Jesus about forgiving a person not just three times, or even four. “But once we’ve forgiven seven times, then we can let them have it, right Jesus?” Peter seems to be thinking that he has really gone over and above the call of forgiveness. Not three strikes and you’re out, Peter is giving them seven strikes.
Jesus smiles, and answers, “I tell you, not seven times, Peter, but seventy-seven times.” Jesus’ words here could also be translated as “70 times 7.” Either way, whether Jesus meant 77 or 490, Jesus is not saying that once a person hits that 78th time or that 491st time, then we don’t have to forgive them. Any of you that are married or have kids know that the amount of times a person can hurt you can real easily blow past 78 or even 491 times. Jesus is using hyperbole. Exaggeration. He is saying, “For Christians, there is no end to forgiveness.” Truly repentant people will forgive and forgive and forgive some more.
Jesus is not saying that we should be doormats who place ourselves in positions where we are abused. We cannot control the actions of other people. We can forgive them, though, and we can place healthy barriers in our lives to keep them, as much as possible, from hurting us.
This week we have been studying John the Baptist’s preaching about repentance in Matthew 3. Notice that John says in verse 10, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Repentance, and the kind of life that flows from godly sorrow, confession and repentance is essential. Forgiveness is part of that.
But repentance, according to John the Baptist, is not just personal or individual. In Luke 3, starting in verse 10, we hear more of John’s teaching about the kind of life that produces fruit in keeping with repentance. Notice how John’s teaching in this section moves beyond the individual:
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
John envisions a repentant life that moves from personal salvation to social justice. The Apostle Paul wrote about this in 2 Corinthians 7. Remember this line: “See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.”
When we are living a repentant life, a life that produces fruit in keeping with repentance, we want there to be justice. First, this means we want to make things right when we have committed the wrong. But second, repentance that leads to justice, means we look around our society and we seek to bring God’s heart for justice all around us.
When the people asked John what he means by “produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” I find it fascinating that he talks about social economics.
There should be equality in possessions and food. There should be fairness in taxation. Finally there should be no abuse of position and power. People who are following the heart of God will pursue justice.
When we repent we do not ignore social change, but instead our hope in Christ we enact that kind of change.
Interestingly, John didn’t tell the people in the crowd that day that they should do what he did. He went out and lived in the desert. Instead he told them to live out their faith in their real worlds. Bearing fruit in keeping with repentance needs to happen in our jobs, in our homes, in our schools.
By the choices you make, the people in your life, such as your neighbors, your classmates, the other kids on your sports team, your co-workers should be able to say “That is a person who is living a repented lifestyle.” They might not use the words “repented lifestyle”! But they will think of you something like this that you “love Jesus and are actually trying to do what he wants you to do.” We Christians will show that we are living a repentant lifestyle when the fruit of the Spirit is flowing out of us, and when we pursue justice in the land. That’s a major way you and get ready for the return of the King.