"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heavens... A time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God." Eccl 3:1, 5, 12-13
What are stones used for? In ancient times, the Greeks used stones and shards for jury duty, hence "ostracize" in English today. Stones were missiles. In the story of David and Goliath, David fits a stone to his slingshot, felling his opponent.
Four capital punishments existed in ancient Israel: stoning, burning, beheading and strangling. Although capital punishment existed, the ancient courts avoided capital punishment by providing cities of refuge and strict guidelines to judge a person, making it virtually impossible to effect such a harsh penalty. The Commandments strictly order, "Thou shalt not kill". The person accused had to have two witnesses attesting the crime, who were to rebuke him before it transpired. Moreover, speaking evil "lashon hara" is also forbidden. A witness could not incite a court to impose a more severe sentence than otherwise warranted.
Biblical teaching emphasizes reconciliation between man and God and man with man. Jonah, sent out to the great city of Ninevah, preaches repentance. The King hears and repents, "arising from his throne, and he laid his robe before him, and covered him with ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: Let them not feed, nor drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his wicked way, and from the violence that is in their hands." Jonah 3: 6-8
In Genesis, strife arises between brothers. Cain kills Abel in a field in a fit of jealousy. Mercifully, God calls to him, "Where is Abel, thy brother?" Cain, fearful of his actions, conceals the truth. He neither lies, nor confesses; he equivocates. "How should I know? Am I my brother's keeper?" Consequently he is cursed and sent forth from society. He is ostracised. Recognizing the dire conditions of his punishment, Cain fears greater retaliation from man than the judgment of God: "Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me." Gn 4:14
God assures Cain that vengeance is alone his, providing protection against any avenger. The cities are refuge are established to protect those who feared for their lives or were condemned of a capital crime so that they could live out their lives. In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob deprives Esau of his blessing and birthright. (Gn 27: 1-43) Rightly infuriated at the deceit, Esau begs, "hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father." Gn 27: 38. Isaac blesses him with physical might. He shall carry a sword and break the rule of his brother. Traditionally, Arab races are traced to Esau and Jews to Jacob, initiating Middle-East conflicts in prehistory. Esau hated his brother, saying in his heart, "I shall slay my brother after the days of mourning are past."
Jacob fled to Haran where he married and lived with his wives many years, growing prosperous with many flocks of sheep, cattle and camels. In Genesis 33, Jacob begins his return journey to birthplace. His brother's ire remains within his heart. He fears the consequence of his actions. He devises a shrewd plan to split his camp into two parties so that if one is attacked, the other will survive; to lavish flocks on Esau appeasing the bitterness and anger of the past; and to separate himself from his people so that Esau might kill him alone. His mind is inventive, creating scenes of possible actions, but he never considers the most important. Esau arrives with four hundred men. Jacob presumes that Esau seeks revenge.
Esau falls on his neck and kisses him. Insecure and fearful of the consequences, Jacob parades his peace offering of flocks. Esau watches without comprehension. Sufficiently supplied, he needs none. For him the past is already gone. Jacob drags it on his back like a stone.
So when Peter asks, "Lord how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?"
Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times; but, Until seventy times seven." Mt: 18: 21-22
Why seven? Why seventy times seven? Seven is the day of Shabbat, the day of rest. Before going to offer sacrifices or entering the temple, scriptures teach that reconciliation must be made between man and man. Jesus strictly warns against the dangers of anger. It is not enough to refrain from killing a person, but the emotion itself is dangerous. He urges reconciliation: "Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift." Mt 5: 20-25
There is a season to cast away stones and a season to gather them. The negative precedes the positive. Drop the anger and retribution in your life, drop the sticks and stones.
Seven represents the year of Sabbath—the year of rest in which debts are forgiven. Fields and vineyards lie fallow. No work is done. People may glean, but not harvest. They may take what they need on a daily basis, but not hoard. How did they survive? From the stores of the old years. The rich provided for the poor. In the year, debts resolved, captives and slaves redeemed--general social reconciliation made. Seven times seven are forty-nine years of Sabbath years, followed by the fiftieth, the Jubilaum. (Leviticus 25) Stop and think. In Jesus' time, this happened. There was a Sabbath and Jubilaum Year in which all debts were forgiven, properties returned to their original owners and slaves and servants freed. The number is associated to a pattern of life-- a habitual pattern of discipline. Every seventh day is the Sabbath when the world is created anew. Every seventh year, the society is called to repent and reconcile wrongs and debts; every forty-ninth and fiftieth years, a double Sabbath Year in which wrongs are corrected. The laws were not abstract, but enacted. Property was restituted and people, redeemed.
Thus Jesus replies to Peter, make repentenance and reconciliation a lifetime habit. Each time you forgive, you offer new life. Each time you drop a stone, you offer a new season of reconciliation.
It's a season that never ends.