It’s a challenging passage assigned for today from the gospel.
Peter asks, “How many times am I to forgive someone who sins against me? Seven?”
Jesus replies “Not seven but seventy-seven.”
The reference to seventy-seven indicates that you should forgive many, many times. I think in previous translations of the Bible, it said seventy times seven. Anyway, seventy-seven would be heard as meaning many, many times. Seven was a special number.
Then Jesus goes on to tell a parable of how one slave begged his master to be forgiven of not having re-paid his debt with the promise that he would pay over a longer period. The master decided to forgive that debt in full perhaps because he was moved by the servant’s circumstances and his authentic contrition.
The parable goes on then to describe how that same servant did not show the same compassion to a fellow slave who owed him a debt.
As the story continues, others were dismayed by such behaviour and told the master. The master was appalled and handed him over to be tortured until he could finally pay his own original debt. A hard thing to do while under constant torture, I’d say.
And a hard point in the parable to explore in a homily.
Well, it seems to me that Jesus’ parable – as is occasionally the case – is a hyperbole. It relies on exaggeration to make a point and it makes the point in a way that most definitely gets the reader’s or the listener’s attention. In the story we can readily see the master as a personification of God the Father. So the inference is to be very careful because God will get you. It almost instills a sense of fear. Punishment can be swift and severe.
Now the problem is how does one reconcile all of that with a loving God and Father.
I think it’s like this. I think it is a story, an example. A story perhaps not that different from what a loving, wise grandfather could say to a young child or grandchild. A loving grandfather could use a similar kind of story in a similar manner.
Say that there was a shed out behind the cottage where the grandfather kept all his tools. A lot of them were sharp and dangerous if the grandchild happened to explore the shed while alone without guidance.
And, so the wise grandfather might say to his grandchild, ”Don’t ever go in there on your own. There is a wicked witch of the north who lives in there and if you’re ever in there by yourself, she’ll get you and eat you up. So, don’t go in there ever unless I’m with you.”
I’m sure that admonishment would get the attention of a young, wide-eyed grandchild and she’d pay attention to what her grandfather had warned and remember it.
I think the passage today is similar. It’s meant to get our attention and to impress how essential it is to be forgiving. We know about being forgiven. We can easily identify with the first servant. And so we should know about forgiving. Perhaps we don’t always remember that. But when we think back to it, we do know what it’s like to be forgiven because we know how that feels for us.
It’s not that our Father in Heaven is the wicked witch or wizard in the sky. It’s that Jesus’ story is to remind us that it really is all about being forgiven and that it is essential for us to also to forgive others.
Forgiveness is what’s called for. Forgiveness – a state of letting go.
Even if the person is likely to do that same thing to you again in the future, forgiveness includes not putting yourself back in that same situation in the future. And, it does mean letting go of the hurt. The person who has somehow injured you receives mercy and compassion by your forgiving them, through your forgiveness.
Think about this too: ultimately it’s the person who forgives who also benefits by being freed from the hurt of having been injured. For you and I as servants, it’s a two-way state of Grace. The point is to remember that we’re forgiven. We're forgiven because we’re forgivable and so is another person, who has done us some wrong, forgivable. So ultimately, as I say, it is we who benefit in being set free through our forgiving someone else.
So how many times are we to forgive a person who causes us hurt or injury? Seventy-seven times?
Yes … But, you don’t have to count them. It just means many, many, many, many times. Just how a loving God and Father in Heaven treats each of us. Just as he forgives us. As we are freed by being forgiven, we also are freed by forgiving others. That’s the message from the parable today.
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”