> I am intrigued by the question asked in this week’s gospel – Matthew 18:21. “If another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Jesus comes back with the answer – not just seven times, but seventy seven times or seventy times seven.
The number 7 might refer to the days of the week – so if seven times isn’t enough then “everyday” forgiveness isn’t enough. 77 times – or 490 times would suggest that it’s to be a lifetime discuipline and that forgiveness should never be exhausted.
Jesus seems to have in the background the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4 and 5)- because again we seem to have all the 7s.
The story first – and then the numbers.
Cain and Abel were the sons of Mr and Mrs First who got done for disobedience. Both of them make their offerings – Abel’s was a good one because he gave the best. Cain’s was less than good because (like most of us) he gave what he could get away with. God showed favour towards Abel, and Cain became so jealous of his brother that he killed him – is Genesis arranged to make the point that it doesn’t take long before we start killing one another? Here’s a moving picture by Leon J.F. Bonnat (French 1834-1923) showing Adam with the body of his son in his arms. Tracey Clarke shows the horror of the first murder as something that had never entered God’s mind.
God comes calling. But he doesn’t curse Cain, though Cain acts as if he has. It’s the earth beneath his feet that curses him. Cain is a frightened man but God promises his protection – and here’s where the 7s start. God says: “Whoever kills Cain will suffer a seven-fold vengeance.”
That’s not the end of it. Cain has family – and the 6th generation – his gt, gt, gt, gt garndson is called Lamech. There is a puzzling reference to Lamech also killing someone. Lamech had a son – his name is NOAH (the 7th generation) – and the rainbow of his story is to be a sign of God’s forgiveness for ever – perhaps 70 times 7 generations having forgiveness overarching their whole existence. Noah was the start of something big – and Lamech had one enormous birthday cake. We are told that (pre-viagra) he was 182 when Noah was born – and that he lived for another 595 years. That is one hell of a lot of candles – 777 in all (182+595).
The magnificence of God’s forgiveness is well captured in the Psalm (103) with such phrases as “the Lord is full of compassion and mercy”, “as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his mercy upon those who fear him.” “As fas as the east is from the west, so far has he ste our sins from us.”