top of page

Is 490 the Limit?

5B Lent

17 Mar 2024

Based on Matthew 18:15-22

Teach Me (Some Melodious Sonnet)


Let’s set the scene for this story.  Last week we found Peter being called Satan, or at least suffering the effects of Satan’s influence. Jesus has been transfigured (another instance of Peter’s cluelessness), a young boy has been cured, and Jesus speaks often of his own death and resurrection. Just before this passage, Jesus speaks of coming to God as a little child and how we must care for the most vulnerable among us.

Jesus found a teaching moment with Peter, who today did not rush to conclusions, but asked questions. Did he hear what he wanted to hear?  Was his heart opened and changed by what Jesus says about forgiveness?

It is complicated, isn’t it?  Let me start by saying this passage has been, and still is, used to urge those who have been abused to forgive abusers as if wrongs can then be forgotten and put behind us.  No, that is not where Jesus was going.

It is once again about community and making creation whole.

On one level, forgiveness can be about simple things.  While I don’t believe animals don’t have a moral conscious, many know when what they have done has displeased you.  So if Lulu, my little chihuahua-rat terrier mix, chews up yet another shoe, am I obligated to forgive her?  I can call it forgiveness or just “letting go”, but if not done, it festers inside of me.  If my child breaks some precious vase, the community of our family remains broken until I forgive and let it go.  This is the easy stuff: when someone or some animal innocently causes harm.  You must forgive. The process is all up to you!

But what about all the rest?  What constitutes forgiveness and when do we reach seventy times seven?

Jesus gives us some interesting instructions, more interesting than I had ever realized.  He gives us a step-by-step approach to reconciliation, one that makes sense in many circumstances. His goal IS reconciliation and restoration, not payment and punishment. The basis of our legal system seems all too often to be punishment and extraction, that is using people who have committed a wrong, or a perceived wrong, to make others wealthier and make no effort to restore the community. Note that Jesus said that when people refuse to listen, they become like outsiders and tax collectors, yet his ministry was one which reached out to the tax collectors and the outsiders!!  I wonder if he was once again being subversive!

Yet I caution you: Jesus’ goal is restoration and wholeness.  There are times when that means one does not openly and wholeheartedly forgive. Where one has been the victim of abuse, be it verbal, sexual, and even legal abuse (think Jim Crow, sexist and xenophobic laws, genderphobia) one should never be required to go to the abuser and tell them they are forgiven.  For one’s own health and wellbeing, some things need to be let go of.  And there are times when asking forgiveness from an individual may cause more harm and fail to bring about the restoration God so longs for us to experience.  It is not simple.  Peter is learning that, and he is learning to ask questions instead of making assumptions.

Jesus looks at forgiveness as intrapersonal more than interpersonal.  It is how YOU are changed.  His whole conversation with Peter and the disciples is about what they need to bring to the act of forgiving someone, not those of the wrongdoer.  If we look at the wrongdoer and wait for them to act, we will be stuck.  By the same token, if someone comes asking our forgiveness, we may not yet be ready to accept it.  This is a process, with the goal being ultimately to reconcile and restore. That process may take hours, weeks, or years.  If you have suffered abuse in childhood and, through therapy or whatever means, you believe you have reached transformation, but a new trigger (i.e. seeing your child at the same age as when you were abused) may bring it all back. Maybe that is what Jesus is getting at with the 70x7.  He knows so well what it is like to be human and that forgiveness is a process, not a once and done thing.

Before I can forgive, I must heal from whatever the trauma is.  Much of what happens to us is minor, like the favorite shoe chewed or the broken vase, and I would hope the process is short and complete. But when the trauma suffered is so prolonged or deep seated, well…. 

It takes time and one may never reach the point where one can forgive.  Don’t listen when someone says forgive and forget.  Those are not Jesus’ words. 

What about the forgiveness that exists between God and us?  Do you believe there are limits to what God will forgive?  Think about the western Christian church in the Middle Ages.  Forgiveness was a commodity to be bought and sold, literally, and there were limits.  If you believe that, you understand what hell is for; you have used up all the get out of jail free cards.

Once again, Jesus teaching to Peter and the disciples, men and women followers, points to no limits on forgiveness.   Anything with the number 7 means complete, full, total.  490 times to forgive one person is a lot!  It is a lot of times for God to forgive us; in fact, it is infinite.

I think Jesus is pointing out all the nuances of forgiveness: it is not always easy; it may need to be done repeatedly; it is both about forgiving and being forgiven and how complicated it is.  There are evil people who will never change.  How does forgiveness look like when we deal with people like that? Not as easy as when the person is truly sorry.

In the end it is also about God’s relationship with us and God’s infinite desire to forgive us. Through Jesus, God was pointing, and is still pointing, to a full and robust Way of living here on earth.  It is all about the Beloved Community, where everyone thrives and has abundant life.

Teach me some melodious sonnet sung by tongues of flame above, the sonnet of forgiveness.



10 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All



bottom of page