Continuing this look at the usages of “seventy-seven” in Scripture (in connection to the report of Jesus calling for forgiveness to be offered seventy-seven times), in regards to the lambs sacrificed, of which there were seventy-seven as part of the sin offering, reference can be made to the fact that Matthew has already called attention to Jesus as a “lamb led to the slaughtering block” (Isaiah 53:7b) with his reference to the fourth verse of that same chapter of Isaiah’s prophetic work: “but He lifted up our illnesses, He carried our pain,” which is to be found in Matthew 8:17.
With the sacrifice of Jesus becoming so inextricably linked to forgiveness (which is, in turn, inextricably linked in the historic narrative of Israel to the end of a period of judgment and exile), this connection becomes quite overt, strengthening the insistence that Jesus also has Ezra in mind when He uses this particular number in relation to the offering of forgiveness, which is a point that Matthew is sure to drive home through his tailoring of the narrative. The twelve male goats that were put forth as a sin offering are easily connected to the twelve tribes of Israel, and by extension to the twelve chosen and named disciples of Jesus. Naturally then, any talk of “three days,” which is the amount of time spent Ezra is said to have spent in Jerusalem at the initial point of the return (not to mention Ezra’s connection to the end of exile and the rebuilding of the Temple), would immediately call to mind the “three days” between the crucifixion and the Resurrection---the figurative tearing down and re-building of the Temple.
Finally, as the wider story of Ezra would be under consideration (if indeed Ezra is in view at all), then also in view are thoughts of exile and exodus (Babylonian captivity and return to the land). Though there had been an official decree by the king of Persia that the Jerusalem Temple was to rebuilt and that the people were to be allowed to return to the land, there was no sense of liberation communicated through the historic works that commemorate this declaration and return. In the ninth chapter of Ezra, just a few words away from the report of the return to Jerusalem and the associated offerings (according to the way in which Ezra is presented), Ezra reports on the mindset of the people by saying that “Although we are slaves, our God has not abandoned us in our servitude. He has extended kindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, in that He has revived us to restore the Temple of our God and to raise up its ruins and to give us a protective wall around Judah and Jerusalem” (9:9).
Though they were indeed in their own land and though they had been given a degree of liberty, they were still subject to the king of Persia. As such, their exodus remained incomplete and their state of exile continued. So any implicit reference to Ezra would call to mind the general mindset there expressed and quite possibly still held by the people of Israel in Jesus’ time as they lived under the occupation of the Romans. While they had a degree of liberty (based on the way that Rome operated), in no way would they have considered themselves to be free. They were ruled over by Gentiles and their tax collectors.
Just because there is a mention of “seventy-seven” in Ezra, does that really mean that Jesus has Ezra in His purview with his insistence of “seventy-seven” acts of forgiveness that follows His directive to treat an at-fault or offending-but-not-yet-repentant brother as a Gentile or tax collector? Along with that question, one must continue to consider the potential reasons that stand behind the particular structure that is to be found here in Matthew, as the author uses the words and stories of Jesus to construct an ideal in the church community through which love and forgiveness will be on offer, while also being sure to deal with the continuously contentious issues surrounding Gentile inclusion within the covenant people of God.