How many times must I forgive my neighbor?
January 3, 2021 8:33 AM   Subscribe

(Some of the) big numbers in the Old Testament: 1 Chronicles 21:5. 2 Samuel 24:9. Jesus and his squad had that background. So I've been thinking lately that Matthew 18:21-22 has not been preached well.

The way I read it, "seventy times seven" is not infinite. I read it more as "try your best, but if they're just always going to treat you like a doormat, move on."

I'm a fan, not a believer. Big grains of salt with my Biblical interpretations are appropriate. But I would be especially interested in a)(Christian) believers' (or apologists') counterarguments and b)other religions' support or contradictions around the same general concepts of forgiveness and its reasonable limits.

I did search first, but I'm happy to have links to previous conversations that I missed. Originally posted to FB, so please forgive the tone. It occurred to me that this was really a question more likely to get a good answer from the green, so I figured I'd toss it out there. Thanks!
posted by phrits to Religion & Philosophy (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think too often people interpret “forgiving” as also “forgetting”. Forgive and forget! However, I’m not seeing the forget part of the equation alluded to in Biblical tomes. So, yes, do your best to forgive someone but that in no way implies that you ever have to let them back into your life as if you’ve “forgotten” the transgression. Forgiving, as I understand it, is more about letting go, not harboring anger and resentment, and freeing your mind and energy to move on in a healthy way.

A small example: when I was in high school I had a boyfriend that constantly cheated on me. I always quickly forgave and forgot. One day a friend asked why I kept going back to him. I explained that I had forgiven him time and time seventy times seven. Looking back I realized that was wrong. I could forgive him, i.e. not harbor ill will, anger and resentment toward him without inviting him back into my life. And eventually that’s what I did.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:06 AM on January 3, 2021 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: I like the insight, @Sassyfras, and thank you.

WRT the specific context, the related advice to "turn the other cheek" supports your original "... and forget" perspective. You'd still be covered if I were running the divine judgement, of course, for going above and beyond while you were figuring things out.
posted by phrits at 9:18 AM on January 3, 2021

Ahhh, yes “turn the other cheek” could be interpreted as “forgetting” but could also be a reminder instead to not retaliate or seek revenge.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:30 AM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

Back in parochial school, I had a nun tell me “turn the other cheek” could also mean “turn away and leave.” No idea if that is an idea with scriptural support, but it made an impact on little grade-school me.
posted by minervous at 9:41 AM on January 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

To Matthew's audience, first-century Jews in the Middle East, the number "seventy times seven" would have been understood as being an unlimited amount. Seven was the number of completeness.
posted by davcoo at 9:46 AM on January 3, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In general Christ's teachings are difficult in the sense of pushing way past our ideas of what's possible, so as a Catholic I definitely read it as "an infinite number of times." (I think the parable immediately after also colors my reading in that direction.)

I googled around a little to see how the recent popes have read it—here's a representative example from St. John Paul II in 1984:
"Seventy times seven": with this reply the Lord wants to make it clear to Peter and to us that we should set no limit to our forgiveness of others. Just as the Lord is always be ready to forgive us, so we must always be ready to forgive one another. And how great is the need for forgiveness and reconciliation in our world today - indeed in our communities and families, in our very own hearts! That is why the special sacrament of the Church for forgiveness, the Sacrament of Penance, is such a precious gift from the Lord.
From there I ended up on his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia:
Christ emphasizes so insistently the need to forgive others that when Peter asked Him how many times he should forgive his neighbor He answered with the symbolic number of "seventy times seven,"131 meaning that he must be able to forgive everyone every time. It is obvious that such a generous requirement of forgiveness does not cancel out the objective requirements of justice. Properly understood, justice constitutes, so to speak, the goal of forgiveness. In no passage of the Gospel message does forgiveness, or mercy as its source, mean indulgence towards evil, towards scandals, towards injury or insult. In any case, reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.

Thus the fundamental structure of justice always enters into the sphere of mercy. Mercy, however, has the power to confer on justice a new content, which is expressed most simply and fully in forgiveness. Forgiveness, in fact, shows that, over and above the process of "compensation" and "truce" which is specific to justice, love is necessary, so that man may affirm himself as man. Fulfillment of the conditions of justice is especially indispensable in order that love may reveal its own nature. In analyzing the parable of the prodigal son, we have already called attention to the fact that he who forgives and he who is forgiven encounter one another at an essential point, namely the dignity or essential value of the person, a point which cannot be lost and the affirmation of which, or its rediscovery, is a source of the greatest joy.
That's pretty typical Catholic stuff, though when I was in other traditions growing up I still always saw it read (and understood it myself) as unlimited forgiveness. If a distinction is made it's typically in the context of what Christian forgiveness is/must be, as you can see JP2 do here.
posted by Polycarp at 9:51 AM on January 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, @davcoo, that (in my experience) is how the lesson has been preached.

My argument is that the folks receiving the message had a general knowledge of what came before, and the older stuff has much bigger numbers than something well under 1K. I don't quite buy the argument that regular folks didn't conceptually grasp the idea of numbers higher than the count of grains in a bushel of wheat. Is the idiom known beyond that context, for example, or can you point me to something else that might corroborate that idea?
posted by phrits at 9:57 AM on January 3, 2021

Best answer: For other religious perspectives: Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg helpfully seperates out forgiveness, atonement, and repentance as three separate actions that are not necessarily dependent on each other (original twitter thread here); CW for discussion of #metoo/sexual abuse/ assault.

A key point is that you can (but also don't have to) make forgiveness predicated on actual teshuva/repentance (and also a victim is not obligated to make forgiveness in order for repentance to be complete.) The root of the Hebrew word means "to turn" so one must genuinely have turned away/ changed.

So, theoretically I'd say Judaism has room for "always be ready to offer forgiveness to those who have genuinely repented" but also "you don't have to forgive those who have not repented".
posted by damayanti at 9:57 AM on January 3, 2021 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you, @Polycarp. I'll keep reading what comes in, but you've essentially answered my specific question. I was raised Catholic, and I understand your references. This also supports @davcoo's comment. Everything else aside, the Catholics have been at this a long time, and they usually have an answer that fits within their framework without breaking something else. JC didn't have siblings, for example, but you're allowed to believe he had cousins near home, or not, as you prefer.

Anyway, I think the approach satisfies my search for scriptural support of healthfully avoiding abuse without being, you know, that guy. Thanks!

On preview, I'm looking forward to reading @damayanti's links.
posted by phrits at 10:08 AM on January 3, 2021

Just listened to a podcast homily on this by a Catholic priest (Father Mike Schmitz, UMD Newman Catholic). He said that as Catholics we are to forgive others because God forgives us. God’s forgiveness of us is infinite, and we are to reflect that in forgiving others. I wish I could remember more of it for you. I think it was the 9/13/2020 episode if you want to listen.
posted by FencingGal at 11:14 AM on January 3, 2021

"forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us" How would you like to be forgiven?
posted by woman at 5:14 PM on January 3, 2021

Possibly pertinent quote by G.K. Chesterton: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”
posted by FencingGal at 5:51 PM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

In my Catholic school education, it was explained that there are some numbers that come up a lot in the Bible: three, seven, forty, et al.

Seven is used in order to represent "a bunch," so "seven times seventy [which is itself ten times seven, and ten is itself more than seven]" stands for "damn near infinite."

In other words, forgive over and over, as God forgives us endlessly.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:29 PM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

It should be said that forgiving doesn't imply forgetting or that you must stay around someone who abuses you, gaslights, cheats or otherwise takes advantage of you. You don't have to stand there and take it, just because it makes them happy to treat you badly.
Love thy neighbor as thyself means loving yourself, and not letting others abuse you.
posted by Enid Lareg at 6:49 PM on January 3, 2021 [1 favorite]

It should be said that forgiving doesn't imply forgetting or that you must stay around someone who abuses you, gaslights, cheats or otherwise takes advantage of you. You don't have to stand there and take it, just because it makes them happy to treat you badly.

I would say that Jesus' instruction to "turn the other cheek" if someone strikes you on one cheek, in other words, make it easy for that person to hit you again, pretty exactly says that you should let other people abuse you. This isn't even just standing there and taking it - it's enabling further physical abuse. And the OP seems to want to know what the New Testament says, not our general thoughts on forgiveness.
posted by FencingGal at 1:31 PM on January 4, 2021

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