Jesus proclaims a serious admonition in today’s gospel (Mt 18:21-19:1), against those who choose not to forgive others.
The text begins with Peter asking Jesus: ““Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” The answer to why Peter asked specifically about forgiving someone seven times can be found in Luke’s Gospel:
Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” (Luke 17:3-4).
Interestingly, Matthew’s recounting of the importance of fraternal correction does not include the exact same text as Luke. However, when we consider the two texts together, they provide insight into Jesus’ lesson on forgiveness. Basically, Peter was asking if Jesus meant the number seven as a definite (i.e. literal) number. Peter’s question in Greek is: Ἕως ἑπτάκις (Transliteration: hĕōs hĕptakis) or “until seven times?”
However, many ancient commentators have suggested the number seven holds a special significance in the Jewish tradition as a a sign of limitlessness. With his reply to Peter- “seventy times seven” – Jesus puts to an end any question in Peter’s mind about how many times we are to forgive one another. Forgiveness is to be liberally given, even in the midst of earthly relationships, in order to reflect the limitlessness of God’s mercy. St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the 4th century, wrote:
When He says, Until seventy times seven, He does not limit a definite number within which forgiveness must be kept; but He signifies thereby something endless and ever enduring.
Is that unrealistic? Many would say so. I know I have certainly felt, at times, as if there was no way I could forgive certain people who had hurt me. Jesus adds his own commentary to his reply to Peter in the form of a parable.
In the parable a servant is brought before his master because he owed him a great debt (i.e. 10,000 talents). The servant’s master ordered that he, along with his wife, children, and all his possessions be sold in order to repay the debt. Wow! That may seem as extreme to our modern ears; however, there was certainly a precedent for it in the ancient culture and Jewish law allowed for it (cf. 2Ki 4:1; Ne 5:8; Le 25:39). The servant begged his master to give him more time to repay the debt. The master relented and agreed to give his servant more time.
The servant left his meeting with his master and encountered a fellow servant who owed him a pittance of what he owed their master (i.e. 100 denarii). The first servant grabbed his fellow servant “by the throat” and demanded payment. When the second servant begged for more time, in the same fashion as the first servant had done, the first servant refused to allow him more time and had him thrown in prison.
Additional servants went to the master of the house and told them what the first servant, the one whom he had forgiven, had done to his fellow servant. The master of the house called for the first servant, scolded him severely for his unwillingness to extend the same mercy he had been so desperate to receive, and had him thrown in jail.
Now for the punch line of the parable. Jesus says:
So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Ouch! No wonder it’s called a “punch line;” every time I read that I feel as if I’ve been punched in the gut!
God’s mercy is limitless for those who show mercy and beg his forgiveness. To those who refuse to repent and refuse to forgive others, God invokes his perfect justice.
While reflecting on this today, I was reminded of the prolific author G. K. Chesterton, who wrote the following while addressing the subjects of justice and charity.
Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. … But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. … It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal [of charity/mercy] either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them.
God has both perfect justice and infinite mercy as part of his divine nature. He will not condemn someone who asks mercy. It does not matter how many times they ask for it. However, he will also not pardon someone who refuses to admit their offense and ask forgiveness.
The parable is illustrative of so many things, not the least of which is how much God forgives us compared to the amount we are to forgive others (10,000 talents (~$10,000 (12,000 days wages)) to 100 denarii (~$1.00 (100 days wages)).
Let us, undeserving as we are, fall before our Master and beg his forgiveness for the amount we owe, we can never repay. Then, confident in the mercy we have received, let us offer it to those we come in contact with during our day (cf. Heb 4:16, Mt 6:11-12).