What’s in a number?
Our reading for today looks more like a math class than a gospel lesson. But the reverse is, in fact, Jesus’ intent. For at his time, and even today, there were many who reduced what God offered – a life filled with opportunities to be blessed and be a blessing – into a bean-counter exercise.
At the beginning of the gospel (Matthew 18:21) we hear Peter asking Jesus how often he should forgive those who offended him. At the time, and even today, the rule established by the sages declared that one was not required to forgive more than three times.
Peter, perhaps trying to venture into the grace-filled way of life that Jesus was intent in teaching, suggested, “Seven times?” Considering that the traditional teaching only required three times, seven – reflecting a particularly important number in Jewish understanding – certainly look better.
I wonder if Tik-Tok had existed in those days, what Peter’s face may have looked in hearing Jesus’ mind-boggling answer, “Seven times seventy – 490 times!” In other words, “As long it is necessary.”
“As long as it is necessary,” or until YOU – and NOT the offender! – reach perfection!
In the Scripture’s understanding, forgiveness is not only what would help anyone who has erred to amend his or her ways but it is what would help the wronged person to understand the deep meaning of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Thus, forgiving is not only and exercise on grace towards others but will help us to grow deeply into the mystery of the goodness and bottomless love of God.
One way to understand what Jesus proposes as living in communion with the Eternal is to think of a long and exhaustive list of daily “do’s and don’ts.” All that we need to do is to keep the score and chalk off items. For sure, such understanding is more relieving. Everything is clearly spelled out, with clear cut decision making.
But if you have lived long enough, by now you have realized that life seldom comes with what it is wrong beyond a reasonable doubt. Often, we are called to make choices between the lesser evil. Soldiers in combat zones face the choice daily. Doctors in an operating room sometimes are called to make split-decision choices. Even today, with our Covid-19 experience, we are called to make decisions for which there is no verse or chapter in the Bible offering us a decisive answer – or for which the closer guidance (Obeying those in authority) is not what we might like to hear.
Forgiveness bring us closer to God’s heart – in that we learn to be and act like God and for God alone. St Paul describes it as the Way of Love, “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living,” (Romans 14:7-9).
When we do not live to ourselves, that is, whenever we deny ourselves the privileges, honors, and rights we believe are due to us, we live to the Lord. Whenever we die to our self-serving interest and narrow-mindedness, we die to the Lord. Whenever we forgive for the umpteenth time, we will be forgiven for the umpteenth time, for this is what Jesus taught us. And in doing all that we will be assured to be the Lord’s.
Forgiveness is never to call right what it is wrong, nor it is forgive and forget. As the Australian theologian Nils von Kalm writes, “To ‘forgive and forget’ is to deny the reality of the wrongdoing. It is actually giving evil a power it does not have.” Indeed, forgiveness is at its heart the way in which we negate the wrongdoer’s hold on us, and our spirits, souls and bodies begin their journey into healing and wholeness.
Fountain of Grace and Love Divine, our God: Through your servant David you promised to forgive all our sins and to heal all our infirmities. Helps us to grow in your grace, love, and mercy so that in forgiving others we may become all that you created us to be, in the plenitude of Him who fills all in all, your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.