“I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Is this another hopelessly idealistic saying of Jesus? Or is there something we not only can do, but should do – must do?
We have to ask ourselves: “What do I really want?” Do I want to be able to say “Well, I did my part” or “I did all that could reasonably be expected” or “I did all I could”? Or is reconciliation with my brother what I want – my brothers’ salvation actually? It’s not, after all, about me. It’s about my brother or sister. Can I ever be content to remain unreconciled – to hold a grudge? Can I ever accept his or her turning away from God? Obviously not. There can be no limit to my willingness to forgive. There may be a limit to what I can personally do to change things, but always I can forgive. To forgive means not to hold something against another – in an accounting sense, as in “forgive a debt”.
Jesus frequently resorted to hyperbole to make his point, as today’s parable illustrates. The steward’s debt would have amounted to eight figures in today’s dollars – a deliberately fantastic amount. Seventy-seven is also a huge number. It would take my brother a lifetime to offend me that many times. And the Jewish system didn’t have torturers for debtors. Jesus’ point in all this exaggeration is that the Christian ethic is not an accounting ethic at all (as Peter and his contemporaries presumed). Seventy-seven is just as irrelevant as seven. The Christian ethic is a “therefore” ethic. God has forgiven me, therefore I must forgive my brother. That response turned Peter’s worldview upside down. I suspect, if we think about it, it would turn ours on its head as well. A popular image of the pearly gates has St. Peter checking the records to see if we get in. – like Santa, checking to see “if we’ve been naughty or nice”. The unbelievable good news is that God forgives – endlessly. There is no proportion at all between my sinning against God’s good creation and my brother’s sinning against me. So, Jesus says, don’t try to reckon it.
What is even more amazing, is not just God’s astounding forgiveness, but His gift of His Son. As the Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil, says: “Oh happy fault! Oh necessary sin . . . to merit so great a Redeemer!” It’s not just that we have been forgiven. We’ve been gifted – incomprehensibly, unimaginably gifted. Thus, our own duty – our vocation – is not just forgiving others, but gifting others with the gift of ourselves.
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