Gen. 50:15-21; Ps. 103:1-13; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35.
Brother, Then Peter came up and said to [Jesus], “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (vv. 21, 22).
Peter’s concern for limiting God’s forgiveness was brought about by a corrosive competitive spirit among the Apostles. Jesus had recently dubbed Peter “Rock” for his solid confession of “the Christ” (Mt. 16:16); and miraculously paid the temple tax for Peter and himself from out of the mouth of a fish, but not for the others (17:27). Certainly, renaming Peter implicitly acknowledged his leadership.
Afterwards the Eleven braced Jesus with a question that bore an implied accusation of favoritism, “Who in the Kingdom of heaven is greatest?” (18:1). Jesus proceeded to teach “Kingdom greatness” exemplified by child-like weakness, need, and poverty of spirit that looks to God for all things. By that metric Peter and his brother Apostles were not even in the race; rather demonstrated insipid vanity.
Nevertheless, Peter’s prominence did not set well with his brothers; and he no doubt felt himself the object of their envy. Thus, Peter’s desire to limit God’s forgiveness, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”
Jesus had again just announced his destiny of dying and rising in Jerusalem intrinsic to his church’s forgiveness in the Resurrection. Thus, “kingdom greatness” must be understood to include one’s willingness to forgive without limit, “I do not say to you [sg.] seven times, but seventy times seven.”
Forgiveness through Jesus’ blood in the NT is endlessly patient and abundant for all who desiring reconciliation with God and brother. Peter and his brothers were to comprehend God’s forgiveness as the work of Christ’s sacrificial death and fundamental to the church’s unity.
The church’s reconciliation does not punish, nor impose division, nor dispense advantage in worldly terms. When we fail in a spirit of forgiveness the obverse of that failure is a judgmental mentality. But brotherly reconciliation necessarily sets judgment aside for the gentleness of love’s persuasion (Rom. 13:8; 14:4, 10).
Joseph, the second youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, was given headship over his father’s far flung affairs. Jacob’s bestowal on Joseph of his so called “robe of many colors” signified his beloved and exalted status in the household (Gen. 37:3).
His elder brothers felt slighted; jealousy turned to raw hatred and plotting Joseph’s death; instead they sold him into Egyptian slavery, suggesting to Jacob that Joseph had been killed by an animal (v. 33). Joseph’s slavery ended in being consigned into Pharaoh’s dungeon.
The British have an expression: “doing your sums”. The idea of “doing one’s sums or accounts” brings us to Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant, “[T]he kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants” (18:23).
Joseph’s wisdom, competence, and faithfulness toward his father’s affairs was proven-out when Joseph was raised from Pharaoh’s prison to be Viceroy over all Egypt.
During the first seven “fat” years of Joseph’s rule he settled Pharaoh’s granary accounts, “doing his sums”; in the succeeding seven famine years Joseph became the dispenser of salvation for the nations seeking Egyptian grain.
Jacob sent his elder sons to buy Egypt’s abundant bread. In the family’s need for food that visitation became the occasion for repentance, forgiveness, brotherly reconciliation, and family restoration.
In seeking bread from Joseph, the brothers came before the Egyptian Viceroy who is a prophesy of Christ, God’s beloved Son and our Brother. In their neediness Joseph put aside “the settling of accounts” for their treachery, instead he extended unconditional forgiveness, a debt they could never repay.
By Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers who had spurned him, family unity was restored in his provision of abundant bread and the promise of future communion in the Land.
Apart from the grace of spiritual poverty, unmerited forgiveness is impossible for sinful men either to give or accept. When God desires to “settle accounts” he graciously forgives our mountainous debt; yet too often we are unwilling to employ the same calculus toward repentant brothers or sisters; making us like the vile Unforgiving Servant.
When we find ourselves in desperate straits, “greatness” in his kingdom is either manifested by our spiritual poverty and dependency on God, or our fraud is exposed. We have no claim on “kingdom greatness” and beg God’s “patience”. For compassion’s sake God has “done his sums”, he finds no profit in our eternal imprisonment; instead he commends us to Jesus, our Joseph-savior for forgiveness and feeding with heaven’s Bread (Ps. 78:25).
Jesus is Bread of Life for the world. In Jesus, God counts us sons and daughters no longer liable for a servant’s “temple tax” (17:24ff.) a payment our Father has provided in Christ once for all. Partaking of Jesus in faith, we are dependent “children” baptized into his spiritual poverty freely enjoying the prerogatives and privileges as God’s sons and daughters.
Still our faith is that of sinful men. We find it hard to accept unmerited forgiveness; which comes and grows only by continually experiencing and exercising participation in our Father’s gracious character; we might say, “seventy times seven.”
When Jacob died his sons doubted Joseph would continue to treat them graciously. Among themselves they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” (Gen. 50:15). In the name of their father, the brothers petitioned Joseph to continue forgiving and caring for them and their families.
Joseph wept for compassion; assuring his brothers, not to fear but to recognize God’s work of forgiveness, of being brought out of sin into grace; and that what they had intended for evil, God meant for good so that many might be kept alive (v. 20).
Jacob’s restored family continued to live in unity in Egypt, the world if you will. After eighty years Joseph prophesied the of Israel’s children their baptismal Red Sea exodus by a new leader, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob” (v. 24).
So also, united in Jesus’ Baptism, his death and resurrection promise, we are being made in the “image” of God’s heart to daily conduct ourselves more and more in the “likeness” of Christ.
We advance in “kingdom greatness”, practicing love’s forgiveness, thereby dying to sin and rising to life, out of the world for possessing the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3). Amen.