Seventy Times Seven

Dear Friends,

There's a new book out that made me sit up and take notice. I don't have any particular recollection of the events related in the book, even though I was living in Indianapolis at the time, but perhaps my mention of it here will spark a memory in you, if you were in Indiana - and unfortunately, if it does, it may be a very negative and distressing memory.

In May, 1985, in Gary, Indiana, a 78-year-old retired Bible teacher named Ruth Pelke was killed during a home invasion by four teenage girls who fled with her car and the ten dollars she had in cash. Paula Cooper was considered to be the ringleader and the one who actually killed Mrs. Pelke. She was 15 years old when it happened, and when she was found guilty and sentenced to death the following year, at 16, she became the youngest person then on death row in America.

I don't want to get into the whole issue of what our view as Christians ought to be with regard to capital punishment, especially as it relates to someone who was a minor when the criminal act was committed. The book does get into all of this apparently, and the struggle in the political and legal realm to figure out the best path forward for our country.

And I have to tell you that I was hesitant to make this story one of my weekly emails because it is pretty gruesome for a church article. But the book is more than just a true crime re-telling of a horrific event that happened in our state and the terrible consequences that always follow such tragic circumstances.

The reason I am putting this story out there for you, especially as we continue through this season of reflection called Lent, comes from the title of this new book: Seventy Times Seven. This phrase, of course, is from the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 18) when Peter asks Jesus, "Lord, how many times should we forgive? As many as seven times?" Peter was considering seven times to be a very generous dose of forgiveness. The usual number of times to forgive, according to the rabbis of the time, was three - so this was double the typical amount, plus one. But Jesus says, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times." Other early translations of this phrase say, "Seventy seven times." So, if you're counting, that's quite a bit less than 70X7, but whether it is 77 or 490 it is still a lot compared to the norm of that day.

And yet, Bible scholars don't think Jesus really meant to give a specific number at all. He is just playing off of the word "seven" from Peter to drive home his point. The number of times to forgive is not the generous number of 7, or even a multiple of that number. What Jesus is saying is, Forgive extravagantly. Forgive unreservedly. Forgive abundantly. Don't keep count of the number of times that you are willing to forgive. God's forgiveness of you has come unconditionally and at a price, and now you are to forgive without limit, even if it costs you something.

In this new book, it is the grandson of Mrs. Pelke who was murdered (his name is Bill Pelke), who one night at work at a Gary steel mill, had a vision of his grandmother crying, and believed that she was crying for Paula Cooper, her convicted murderer. He became convinced that "she would not want this girl?to be killed in her name." He turned to the Bible for guidance, and was drawn to the "seventy times seven" passage I described above. This led to a long correspondence between Bill and Paula, and prison visits, until her death sentence was eventually commuted.

This was such a huge transgression for Bill Pelke to be called on to forgive, and I hope none of us will ever encounter anything like it. And yet, there is that continual, penetrating call of Jesus, and perhaps we hear this call the loudest and strongest during this season of Lent and period of Holy Week that is nearly upon us, to experience deeply the grace and mercy and forgiveness we have received from our Lord, and then to be bearers and sharers of that same grace and mercy and forgiveness with others.

Grace and Hope to you this week,

Pastor Duane