490 Butterflies | Matthew 18:21-35
That’s the number — 7 times 70, or 490. There’s some variation in how we understand the conversation Matthew recorded, so maybe the number is just 77. Either way, it’s substantially larger than Peter was prepared to hear.
If someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, I tell you, but seventy times seven.
It’s a big number.
Peter was just trying to get a handle on this whole forgiveness thing, which was itself a way of getting a handle on the whole God-thing. We like measuring out the gifts we give. We especially like taking the measure of God.
This is the line. These are the rules. How else are we going to know who is right and who is wrong? To put it another way, how else are we going to tell us from them?
We’re hard-wired to identify with our group. Millennia of evolution behind us, we know that the best way to survive is to stick with our group. Our tribe. Our family. Our kind. Against whatever is out there—saber tooth tigers, wolves, other people. We’ve learned to follow the behavior markers of our group, the way we dress ourselves, the things we do and don’t do, and most particularly the things we do and do not say.
If we are people of faith, there is the God-tribe. Mostly, it still means the same thing—our group. Not whoever is worshipping the same God differently. Depending on the brand of our denomination or faith, that may leave out the Methodists or Presbyterians, or the Roman Catholics, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Buddhists. It certainly leaves out those rogue, snake handling, King James Baptists, unless you are one, in which case your God-tribe likely excludes nearly everyone.
It’s about behaviors and boundaries, the behaviors that reassure us that we belong in our God-tribe, the boundaries by which we keep other people out.
Forgiveness. Putting down the club. Letting someone else shelter in our cave, enlarging our tribe. It is interesting that when we forgive others, we’re the ones who benefit the most. The object of our moral outrage seldom pays any kind of price. They may not even care.
Forgiveness held back is like rocks in the arms of a swimmer. The rocks may be intended for bashing an opponent, but they serve only to drown the one carrying them. Resentment is a burden carried by those who hold back forgiveness, measuring out grace as though it is a thing best kept close.
They are the same thing, resentment and forgiveness, just as a caterpillar and a butterfly are two aspects of the same life force. Kept inside us, resentment is a worm that eats into our hearts. Released, it flies. Those we forgive may see the beauty in its wings, but it is our own heart that is lighter.