The Gospel. St. Matthew 18 v. 21
At that time: Peter said unto Jesus: Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times? Jesus saith unto him: I say not unto thee, until seven times: but seventy times seven. Therefore is the kingdom of Heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants. And when he had begun to reckon, one was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents. But forasmuch as he had not to pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, and his wife and children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. The servant therefore fell down and worshipped him, saying: Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt. But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellow-servants, which owed him an hundred pence; and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying: Pay me that thou owest. And his fellow servant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying: Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all. And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were very sorry: and came and told unto their lord all that was done. Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him: O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow servant, even as I had pity on thee? And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
Well now, I might imagine that some of you might be thinking, “Oh here we go again with that whole “forgiveness” thing”; ”now Father is going to ramble on about loving and forgiving one another, etc., etc., etc”. And of course, you would be right. How can I preach otherwise about today’s Gospel? Indeed, how could I preach otherwise about the entirety of the Gospel and the rest of the New Testament? It’s ALL about forgiveness, right? Ah, but what does it mean to say “ALL”? On this day, Our Lord gives us a little hint.
Today’s Gospel starts off with St. Peter asking a question of Jesus, and proposing an answer; “Lord, how often do I have to forgive my brother if he sins against me? How about, oh, seven times”? It’s times like this that I thank God for St. Peter, because he always seems to ask all the stupid questions that we would likely be afraid to ask. In this example, St. Peter has come down with what I call, “a bad case of the clevers”.
By asking this question in the way that he did, St. Peter is trying to show that he has been paying attention to all that Christ has taught. He knows that the Jewish teaching of those days mandated that one is to forgive three times, but no more than that. This was based at least in part on the book of Amos (ch 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; ch 2:1, 4, 6) where God condemns various nations for three transgressions, and for four. This was interpreted to mean that God would hold back His punishment for the first three sins, but if there was a fourth transgression, watch out! Therefore, since man’s forgiveness could not exceed God’s then man was obligated to forgive another no more than three times.
No doubt St. Peter thought that he was being quite magnanimous by picking the number seven out of the air. It was, after all, more than twice the number of times those high-falutin Pharisees would have taught. So now Peter sits back and waits for the Master to warmly compliment him on his great show of generosity.
But, as we know, Peter hasn’t quite gotten it right; and Jesus has to try to get him to understand the bigger picture. This he does in two different ways; first, Jesus tells Peter, “no son, not just seven times, but seventy times seven”. Now of course by this Jesus does not mean that the new number is really 490; rather, Our Lord is telling Peter, and us as well, that forgiveness should be without number, and without measure.
Our standard, unlike the interpretation of the Jews of that time, is the forgiveness of God, as manifested by His Son; and that forgiveness cannot be quantified. It is infinite. We cannot stop forgiving just because we grow tired of doing so. After all, we probably only have a few transgressors to forgive; God has ALL of us transgressing against Him; think He might be tired of it? And besides, if we claim to be Christians, we have to forgive without ceasing. Remember Jesus command to us from the Sermon on the Mount; “be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect“(Matthew 5:48).
To communicate the second part of this bigger picture, and the infinite quality our own forgiveness should take on, Jesus tells us the parable of the wicked servant. We all know this story as well; servant has rung up a huge debt to the king. King orders that the servant and his family be sold into slavery in order to pay. Servant begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Servant then confronts another servant for repayment of a much smaller amount and has that poor chap tossed into jail for failing to pay. King gets wind of this and has the ungrateful nut tossed into jail himself.
The message here should be very obvious, but it is amazing how often we forget it. Here this wicked servant had basically gotten something for nothing, the forgiveness of a debt, just by asking. Then he turns around and shows his ingratitude by failing to show the same compassion that had been shown to him. This scene should come to mind every time we say or sing the Kyrie; “Lord, have mercy upon us”. Well, He has; and how have we shown our gratitude?
Of course, as we know, our Salvation has been bought and paid for by Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross; but that does not relieve us of our obligation. Salvation is not some divine entitlement program; we have been given the choice to accept or reject it. And the way that we accept it is by trying to become more Christ-like in our hearts and in our daily lives. And forgiveness is at the root of that.
We must forgive others, if we ourselves expect to be forgiven. How can we believe that God will forgive our many, grievous sins, if we cannot bring ourselves to forgive the comparatively minor transgressions that others have committed against us? It’s unthinkable that we should presume anything else; indeed, we ask for it, we commit ourselves to it, every time we pray that great prayer Our Lord taught us, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us”!
How often have we recited that prayer? Do we realize just how we may be damning ourselves when we do? By our own words, we are pleading to God that He will judge us just as we have judged others. Think about that. Has there been any time when we have failed or refused to forgive someone, or only forgiven “part-way” by using that old line; “I’ll forgive, but I’ll never forget”, or, “I’ll never trust them again”. Do you think God ever forgets? Have we done anything to engender His trust in us? Have we done anything to show how grateful we are for God’s forgiveness? Or are we like that wicked servant, denying others the forgiveness, the mercy that Christ told us we should show?
So there you have the “bigger picture”. Our forgiveness of others must be infinite, just as God’s forgiveness is infinite. It must be unquantifiable, unconditional, all-encompassing, though at times it may be unrewarded, at least here on earth. It must come from our hearts and it cannot be “part-way”. Our willingness to forgive must mirror that of God, who will hold us to our word on that last day and judge us just as we have asked Him to do. We must keep this “bigger picture” in our hearts and minds every day of our lives, because in the end, it is ALL about forgiveness.
I say not unto thee, until seven times: but seventy times seven. So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.