What Do Ancient Jewish Scholars Say About How to Forgive?

There is a core misunderstanding among Evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics today with regard to rabbinical writings on forgiveness. In Matthew 18:21, an enthusiastic Peter asks Jesus “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” The typical explanation follows these lines.
“Jewish tradition limited forgiveness to three times. Peter thought his willingness to forgive seven times was much more generous than Jewish tradition and thus surpassing the righteousness of the religious teachers of the law. But then Jesus ramps it up by saying that the injured party must forgive seventy times seven times. And so the moral of the story is that victims today should forgive the ones who hurt them, over and over if need be, whether there is any repentance at all. So victim, obey Christ and forgive the one who hurt you and if safe, pursue reconciliation whether they are repentant or not.”

It sounds so magnanimous, so Jesus-like, right? But unfortunately, this interpretation is quite inaccurate and if the truth were known, dumps even more abuse onto the Victim.

The only Jewish tradition that we are familiar with today concerns limitations on how many times must truly-repentant perpetrators go to their unforgiving injured party to humbly ask for forgiveness. That’s altogether a horse of a different color.
“The law regarding physical injury, for example, is explicit in that even after the various compensatory payments have been made, the inflictor of the damage must seek the forgiveness of the injured party for the suffering caused…Not only must he who sins against his fellow seek forgiveness from him, but the one sinned against is duty bound to forgive…[but] if the injured party refuses to forgive even when the sinner has come before him three times in the presence of others and asked for forgiveness, then [the injured party] is in turn deemed to have sinned. (see http://www.grjc.org/rabbi/sermons/WithholdingForgiveness.pdf)

Plaintiff, be encouraged. Jesus would never have you reconcile with the one who injured you until you have experienced justice. Further, there can be no reconciliation until the perpetrator is truly remorseful and has owned the crime.

It turns out that we badly misunderstood the passage. There are no rabbinical writings that even hint that victims must pursue reconciliation with unrepentant perpetrators once, much less seventy time seven times.

As a part of the Jewish reconciliation process, Plaintiffs are to forgive the Defendant, but only if the truly-repentant Defendant pursues them in the presence of witnesses and begs for forgiveness. Jesus was hardly suggesting otherwise.

From Cupology 101:
“Humanly speaking, for forgiveness and reconciliation to take place, the offender must become worthy of forgiveness by means of apology, remorse, and restitution (if appropriate) before God and others. The highly influential twelfth-century Jewish Rabbi Maimonides (Dorff, 1998) defined appropriate offender teshuvah. Teshuvah must include:
• Acknowledgement that one has done something wrong,
• Public confession of one’s wrongdoing to both God and the community,
• Public expression of remorse,
• Public announcement of the offender’s resolve not to sin in this way again,
• Compensation of the victim for the injury inflicted accompanied by acts of charity to others,
• Sincere request of forgiveness by the victim,
• Avoidance of the conditions that caused the offense, and
• Acting differently when confronted with the same situation.

Only after the offender has appropriately done teshuvah is the victim duty bound to accept the person back into community, to forgive them, and to work toward full reconciliation.
Schimmel agrees with Maimonides and defines the Jewish tradition as an “obligation to a repentant offender.” Schimmel criticizes the Western therapeutic models, which he describes as having an unstated radical Christian understanding of forgiveness, but which misunderstand that God offers atonement for sins only on the basis of a sinner’s (offender’s) repentance. Instead of de-emphasizing the role of the offender, Schimmel says that humanity is called to imitate God who “punishes unrepentant sinners and forgives repentant ones.” He suggests that the “radical” Christian concept of forgiveness that demands that a victim forgive an unrepentant sinner is “morally wrong.” He interprets such New Testament passages as Matt 6:12-15 and 1 Cor 13:4-8 and concludes that it just “isn’t clear if God expects us to forgive others who hurt us even if they have not apologized or repented.”

In the Judah of Jesus’ day, the command to forgive assumed that the offender has already performed teshuvah. And so in Schimmel’s view, Jesus’ rabbinical admonition that we are to forgive even seventy times seven times actually refers to a case where an offender has truly repented for their crimes over and over again and yet the victim just will not forgive them. In classic rabbinical thought, the remorseful offender only needs to truly repent three times. If the victim remains unforgiving, then they have actually committed a separate crime against their former perpetrator.
Jesus is not teaching victims to ever forgive unrepentant perpetrators. That would be very foolish and even destructive thing to do.” (Cupology 101)

But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Jesus was beginning a new conversation in Matt 18:21ff and not dialoguing with existing rabbinical thought. Let’s just say that Jesus was ramping up the responsibility of the injured party far beyond anything 1st ct. Judaism required, or thought was moral for that matter.
“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy seven times” (Matt 18:22 NIV).

Plaintiff-victim, consider this. Recent scholarship within Evangelicalism has largely taught that “forgiveness” entails that you, the Plaintiff-victim, must unilaterally give up your rights to justice and restoration and instead, you are commanded to make a bold choice to give your perpetrator the unilateral altruistic gift of forgiveness.

In other words, whether the Defendant-perp is truly-repentant or not, whether there has been any semblance of justice for the injury at all, you must—if you really want to be in-sync with the Spirit and in-line with Jesus’ teaching—choose to let them off the hook by an act of your will. This, it is taught, is what Jesus had in mind.

But this cannot be so. Instead, I would offer you a very different understanding of the very nature of Biblical forgiveness. It turns out that the above expression of “forgiveness” is not Biblical forgiveness at all.

Biblical forgiveness entails that you, the victim, accept the role of being the official Plaintiff in your just trial for the crimes committed against you. In God’s courtroom, you are a person of great honor and glory. This Judge has absolute jurisdiction over all crimes and has the power to restore you to an experience of wholeness. Here, it is wildly counter-purpose to give up your rights to justice and restitution. Why would you do that? God never does that Himself.

No, in this courtroom, the Judge would hear your voice regarding what you lost.
Here in His presence, you are invited to by faith feel humanity again.
Here you are invited to remember who you are in Christ.

So no matter what happened to you, no matter what was taken from you,
never weary of bringing your injustices here in the presence of God,
never weary of doing that over and over
—even if it takes seventy times seven times.

Such a judicial-based forgiveness is critical to your capacity to move beyond the diminishment, critical to restoring you to wholeness, furthering deep healing, and providing a fresh sturdy foundation for your future relationships.

Remember, God only forgave you for all of the crimes that you committed against him solely on the basis of the just work of Jesus on your behalf on the cross. God never gave up His right to justice, right? So why would you think that you could ever make a more magnanimous gesture than even God.

It is illogical to imagine that Jesus is commanding you to give up your right to justice. Rather, Jesus is inviting you to run to the Magnanimous Judge, to submit to the jurisdiction of His court and by faith receive a powerful foretaste of your future perfect consolation.

Plaintiff, enter the courtroom, by faith, three times, seven times, even seventy times seven times if need be.

Whatever you do, don’t give up your rights as an image bearer of God.

You deserve consolation.