Forgiving Seven Times

The winner of the 1952 Peace Nobel Prize, Albert Schweitzer, notable for his philosophy of ''reference for life'', explained in a letter from his hospital in Lambarene his view of what it means for a Christian to forgive, as follows. (Translated from the German version. (see also the translation in Ukrainian)


Then Peter approached him with the question, 'Master, how many times can my brother wrong me and I must forgive him? Would seven times be enough?
(Matth. 18:21)


As soon as you've gotten up in the morning and are standing in front of your hut, someone that all people know as a wicked person comes along and insults you. Because the Lord Jesus says that we should forgive, you keep silent instead of starting a quarrel.

After that, your neighbor's goat eats the bananas you intended to have for lunch. Instead of starting a dispute with your neighbor, you just tell him that it was his goat and that it would be fair if he would reimburse you for the bananas. But if he then objects and says it was not his goat, you quietly leave for good, thinking that God will grow as many bananas in your garden as you need, so that it is not needed to start a dispute because of this event.

Later, the man to whom you have given ten bunches of bananas in order to sell them together with his own bananas on the market, returns and hands you over the money for only nine bunches of bananas. You tell him that this does not correspond to the expected revenue. He replies that you had counted correctly and given only nine bunches of bananas to him. This makes you feel like screaming into his face and calling him a liar. But then you remember the many lies only you are aware of God must forgive you, and quietly return into your hut.

When making fire, you notice that somebody has taken away some of the logs you gathered yesterday in the forest and that were meant to suffice for cooking your meals for a weak. Once again you force your heart to forgive and refrain from searching the houses of all your neighbors to find out who might have stolen your logs and sue the thief by bringing the issue in front of the chieftain.

In the afternoon, as you want to start your work in the plantation you discover that someone has taken away your good machete and replaced it by an, old, jagged machete. You know who did this, because you recognize that machete. You think that as you have forgiven four times, you will be able to forgive a fifth time too. Although it was a bad day that brought you a lot of annoyance, you feel happy as if it were one of the most serendipitous days. Why is this? Your heart is happy for having obeyed the will of the Lord Jesus.

In the evening you want to go fishing. You reach for the torch you expect to stand in the corner of the hut, but it is not there. Now you really have enough, and the anger overtakes you. You think that you have forgiven enough today, and that you want to ambush the rascal who went fishing with your torch. But once more, the Lord Jesus takes power over your heart. With a torch borrowed from a neighbor you walk down to the shore.

Arriving at the shore you discover that your boat is missing. Someone else has taken it for fishing. Very angry, you hide behind a tree to wait for the one who has done this with the intention to take away all the fish from him upon his return and summon him before the district captain to make him pay a penance to compensate you in accordance with justice. But while you are waiting, your heart begins to talk to you. It continuously repeats the quote of Jesus, that our God cannot forgive our sins if we do not forgive people. You have to wait such a long time, that the Lord Jesus becomes master over you again. Instead of using your fists to attack the thief of your boat as he finally returns at dawn and falls down in fear seeing you coming forward from behind the tree, you just tell him that the Lord Jesus compels you to forgive him, and let him quietly go his way. You even refrain from demanding the fish from him, if he is not willing to voluntarily leave it to you. But I think he gives it to you, out of sheer amazement that you do not start a quarrel with him.

Now you go home, happy and proud that you have brought yourself to forgive seven times. But if on that day the Lord Jesus would come to your village and you would appear in front, expecting him to praise your mercy to everyone, he would say to you as he said to Peter that to forgive seven times is not enough, that you have to forgive seven times, again and again, and many more times, until God can forgive your many sins.


Then Peter approached him with the question, "Master, how many times can my brother wrong me and I must forgive him? Would seven times be enough?"

"No," replied Jesus, "not seven times, but seventy times seven! For the kingdom of Heaven is like a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When he had started calling in his accounts, a man was brought to him who owed him millions of pounds. And when it was plain that he had no means of repaying the debt, his master gave orders for him to be sold as a slave, and his wife and children and all his possessions as well, and the money to be paid over. At this the servant fell on his knees before his master, 'Oh, be patient with me!' he cried, 'and I will pay you back every penny!' Then his master was moved with pity for him, set him free and cancelled his debt.

"But when this same servant had left his master's presence, he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a few shillings. He grabbed him and seized him by the throat, crying, 'Pay up what you owe me!' At this his fellow-servant fell down at his feet, and implored him, 'Oh, be patient with me, and I will pay you back!' But he refused and went out and had him put in prison until he should repay the debt. When the other fellow-servants saw what had happened, they were horrified and told their master the whole incident.

"Then his master called him in. 'You wicked servant!' he said. 'Didn't I cancel all that debt when you begged me to do so? Oughtn't you to have taken pity on your fellow-servant as I, your master, took pity on you?' And his master in anger handed him over to the gaolers till he should repay the whole debt. This is how my Heavenly Father will treat you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart."

(Matth. 18:21-35)


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Arnold Neumaier (Arnold.Neumaier@univie.ac.at)