Thursday, August 13, 2009

I Say To You, Not Seven Times, But Seventy-Seven Times!

In yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus spoke to his disciples about how to deal with those who have offended them. It may surprise you to learn that the Gospel encourages us to confront our offenders, letting them know that their behavior is unacceptable. Finally, if all else fails, “treat them as you would a Gentile or a Publican” – that is, have nothing further to do with them.

Today, Jesus addresses the other side of the question, in answer to a question from Peter: “Lord, if I am offended, how often must I forgive the offender – as many as seven times? Jesus answers, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Then he illustrates his precept with the parable in today’s gospel.

"The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

Jesus often resorts to hyperbole in making his point, and he does so in this parable. If we translate the first steward’s debt into today’s dollars, it would reach eight digits – ten billion dollars or more! It is a deliberately exaggerated amount. The point Jesus is making here is that the Christian ethic is not based on accounting principles (as the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law taught, and Peter assumed). The number seventy-seven is totally irrelevant – and so is the number seven. The Christian ethic is a “therefore” ethic. God has forgiven me; therefore I must forgive others. That response turned Peter’s perspective upside down. If we think about it, it might turn ours downside up.

A popular image of the “particular judgment” which occurs at the moment that follows the moment of death has Saint Peter, the keeper of the keys, checking the records to see whether or not we will be allowed entry into the Kingdom of Heaven – rather like Santa checking whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

God’s infinite desire to forgive, and to offer us grace to live in imitation of His Son, poses a challenge to you and me. We are called to forgive others in the same measure as we want God to forgive us. But keep this in mind: forgiveness is a grace received, impossible for us to offer to others without Jesus. Pray constantly for the people you need to forgive, because they offended you yesterday, and those who will offend you today and tomorrow. There is no proportion between my sinning against God and my neighbor’s sinning against me. So, Jesus advises us, don’t try to reckon it.

What is even more astounding than God’s willingness to forgive us, even before we repent, is His gift of His only-begotten Son. As we sing in the Exultet, at the Easter Vigil:

“Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

Oh, happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam,
Which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

It is not simply that we have been forgiven, and that we will be forgiven again and again. It is that we have been gifted, amazingly and incomprehensibly gifted. Thus, our duty – our calling – is not just to forgive as we have been forgiven, but, just as Jesus gave us the gift of Himself, to gift others with the gift of ourselves.

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