DAILY READING: Matthew 18:21–35

FOCUS PASSAGE: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” (Matthew 18:21–22)

Often in the Gospels people asked Jesus a question out of a particular personal motivation, only to find that Jesus didn’t answer their question. Rather, he raised new questions, or redirected their question to that which was relevant to the kingdom of God.

Peter asked a question about forgiveness. “How many times should I forgive another? Seven times?” It was a generous question. Most of us don’t get past three.

But there was an unspoken part of Peter’s question: “How many times should I forgive someone else before I take matters into my own hands?” Peter’s background in Jewish law restrained him from excessive retaliation, limiting vengeance to “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Without such limits, violence escalates and even small matters are punished excessively. Peter simply wanted to know the cut-off point, the line beyond which he could take matters into his own hands.

Jesus’ answer was aimed at Peter’s desire to retaliate and to know how much patience he was required to have with another. By playing off Peter’s use of “seven times,” Jesus extended forgiveness infinitely. In other words, there is no point at which you run out of forgiveness and begin retaliating. Forgiveness is boundless.

Then Jesus told a story about the economy of the kingdom of heaven. The story was about mercy received, mercy given, and mercy hoarded.

What does it mean to live life in a state of mercy, that is, where we receive mercy and give mercy in a never-ending flow? In the story, the first servant received generous mercy, but then refused to extend mercy to another. The end of the story shocks our sensibilities a bit, as it sounds like mercy can be withdrawn if it is not shared.

Think of it this way: mercy is not extended to us simply for our own benefit. Mercy is to be extended to all, through all. But when the flow of mercy stops in the life of someone who hoards mercy or who is only interested in accumulating mercy for his own personal well-being, then mercy dries up. It no longer carries transformative power. It becomes a private possession, not a world-transforming grace.

God has no desire that we collect forgiveness and mercy and then hoard it for ourselves. With God there is abundance, a continual flow, so that what we give away is always replenished.

As humans, we may never be more like God than when we live in this free-flow of mercy and forgiveness, and when we do so without measuring, giving generously and gratuitously.

There is humility within this divine rhythm, where we recognize our need for mercy and thus receive it with open hands. Then in our humility, we extend mercy to others for the transformation of the world, refusing to judge others, but doling out generous helpings of healing mercy to those living under heavy weights.

Both receiving and giving away mercy are divine disciplines for the Lenten season.

The Lent Weekly Devotional series is written by Jerry Webber, Community Pastor, The Center for Christian Spirituality/Contemplative Worship.