Turning Forgiveness Into an Icon

Repetition matters.

I read this today, from Rob Walker, about the enduring power of the iconic symbol of Nike. Here’s a snipped of the post.

Earlier this year, someone asked me for my “take” on Nike’s logo, and its “enduring power.” That sounded a little over the top to me at the time, and I didn’t know what to say. But upon reflection I actually agree with the question’s premise: The “swoosh” turned 40 in 2011, and it does have enduring power. In fact it’s one of those rare logos that can serve as a sort of metalogo, signifying branding in general, for better and for worse.

Is the Swoosh, then, the ultimate example of why graphic design matters — a symbol so cunningly crafted that its aesthetics lodge themselves in every brain at a mere glance? I think this is what my inquisitor wanted me to say. … But really I think that the graphic virtues of the swoosh can be disposed of in a few sentences. It’s simple. It’s an unusual shape, but only slightly so: With the look of a fleet-yet-muscular checkmark, it suggests motion and achievement in a way that borders on being too obvious. “I don’t love it,” Phil Knight famously responded when it was first presented to him, “but maybe it will grow on me.”

It not only grew on Knight, it grew all over the culture — like kudzu with a profit motive. And this, in fact, is the more compelling reason for this particular logo’s “enduring power”: repetition. You can say all you like about the graphic properties of this commercial symbol or any other, but logos are a distinct category of visual, partly because of their specific relationship with repetition.

An art image like the Mona Lisa or Warhol’s Tomato Soup Can may be repeated endlessly because it is iconic in the way that a landmark (the Grand Canyon; the Eiffel Tower; Angkor Wat) is iconic: everyone wants to see it. The Swoosh, on the other hand, is an example of a commercial image that it is iconic because it has been repeated endlessly — because everyone has seen it, whether we wanted to or not. Surely repetition matters to any logo’s success, but few commercial entities have proven quite so effective in propagating a single graphic mark as Nike.

The Nike swoosh is iconic because it is repetitive. That is an interesting concept.

The post instantly reminded me of Jesus’ view of forgiveness in Matthew 18. He makes this curious statement about forgiving someone “seventy times seven.” This statement comes on the heels of a suggestion by Peter, that forgiveness could be extended seven times. Peter doesn’t use a random number, here. He is actually offering a valid, and good, suggestion.

There were some interesting Jewish cultural practices that allowed forgiveness in a limited quantity for sins that were planned and executed. And the practice only allowed for a person to offer forgiveness three times. So, if someone knew their actions were sinful, and they did it three times, you forgave them three times. But by the fourth time, forgiveness is no longer an option. That individual did not seem to change their behavior. There was no repentent heart.

So Peter seems to be extending that cultural teaching.

But Jesus does a couple of interesting things here.

First, with his challenge to forgive “seventy times seven,” he not only overwhelms this Jewish teaching (and Peter’s suggestion), he also overwhelms a Jewish teaching of vengeance being offered “seventy times seven.” (Read Genesis 4.) He is serious about this. Extremely serious. He makes forgiveness an act of repetition.

By making this statement, Jesus turns forgiveness into an icon. He gives it an enduring power found in its repetition. It should become as common to us as air. It is the Nike swoosh of our faith. It does not fail. It does not slumber. It keeps coming.

And the power it has is the power of regeneration in our own life. It frees us from the want of vengeance.

But the other very cool thing is that Jesus tells a parable about a servant who owes an inexplicable debt to a king. The king forgives this debt, yet the servant does not forgive those who owe him money.

The power of the story, though, lies in its imagery.

Jesus uses a monetary amount in this parable, and he does for a reason. He remarks that the servant owes the king ten thousand talents.

The number 10,000 is the largest single number the Greek language could express. And the talent is the single largest amount of money in his culture. In other words, the man owed the king more money than anyone could even imagine. Modern footnotes in modern bibles even get this wrong. It is true that the amount owed, in current dollars, is in the millions, maybe even billions. But that misses the point.

It is an overwhelming amount of money. The region of Galilee, like all outlying regions, paid annual tributes to the Roman Empire. Historical records tell us that in one year, the region of Galilee owed, and paid the Roman Empire 200 talents.

So Jesus, in this parable, is actually saying that this petty servant owed this king more money that could even be found in the entire region of Galilee.

If Jesus were to tell us this parable, it would probably start like this: “One man owed the government, by himself, $4 trillion …” Even when we are hurt more than anyone could ever imagine, forgiveness should be offered.

Jesus operated in a world that constantly required him to forgive every. single. person. He understood the power of repetitive forgiveness. Knowing that we could never understand that once-and-for-all forgiveness, he instead offered a challenge.

Keep forgiving.

There is an enduring power in repetition. Make forgiveness your enduring brand. Turn it into an icon.


Very grateful for Craig Keener’s book A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.


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