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Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’
Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’
So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
In Matthew’s account of the giving of the Lord’s Prayer we read: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. This translation from the original Greek has been known to cause even more confusion than that engendered by the use of ‘trespasses’ or ‘sins’. Whichever version you prefer (debts, sins or trespasses) this moment in Jesus’ model for prayer is about forgiveness. It is about our desire and need for forgiveness, and our willingness to forgive others.
Today’s reading, also from Matthew’s gospel, focuses on the issue of forgiveness in great detail. The reading opens with Peter asking how often we should forgive fellow Christians. Jesus’ response is much more far-reaching than many suppose. Peter suggests the magnanimous gesture of forgiving someone seven times and Jesus says: Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Jesus’ words are couched in a code that would have been readily understood by those who heard him speak. The number ‘seventy-seven’ was code for ‘times without number’, that is, as many times as that person sins against you, you should forgive them. Jesus is not suggesting that we should keep a special note of every time someone ‘sins’ against us, ticking off each instance until the point of no return is reached. Instead, Jesus is urging us to not waste our time on such negativity and resentment. Jesus wants us to recognize that, like us, other people get things wrong. Then, just as we hope to be forgiven, so we should forgive, unconditionally and in a spirit of Christ-like love and forbearance.
It is not difficult for us all to think of things that we ‘could never forgive’. But, such an attitude is totally out-of-line with Jesus’ teaching on this matter. Again in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. Then as he hangs upon the cross, Jesus prays on behalf of his executioners: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian message because it is rooted in a selfless and self-effacing love for those with whom we journey through this life. Jesus is unequivocal in this teaching. Any watering down of this message does not come from God, but from the devil. Any idea of there being an exception to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness only serves to distance us from God, the God who we hope and pray will one day forgive us for our many, many sins, debts and trespasses.