Note: A biblical reflection on the gospel passage appointed for this day in the Revised Common Lectionary.
Peter 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 seventy times seven” (Matthew 18.21-22)
Back in the day, rabbinical teaching called for forgiving another three times. And no more. In part, this was based on an interpretation of God’s treatment of Israel’s enemies:
Thus, says the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus…of Gaza…of Tyre…of Edom…of the Ammonites, but for four, I will not revoke the punishment (Amos 1.3, 6, 9, 11, 13; my emphases)
Peter, with his characteristic enthusiasm, although, equally typical, his misunderstanding of Jesus, seeking to be especially charitable, doubles the standard and, for extra measure, adds one more.
However, Jesus ever drinks from (is!) the fountain of God’s inexhaustible grace. Always expanding, exploding the boundaries of human imagining, Jesus counters, multiplying Peter’s seven by seventy!
In my experience of trying to apply Jesus’ teaching in my life and relationships, his number 490 (which, in practical and, truly, spiritual terms, is illimitable) is beyond my counting. Even in my most zealous moments of arithmetical scrupulosity, I can’t keep track of how many times I have forgiven another who has wounded or wronged me.
And even if I could, Jesus intends that I forgive each offense 490 (illimitable!) times! I believe this precisely because forgiveness is difficult for me…
Among many examples (and, honesty compels my confession, I’ve repeated this one countless times!): I forgive someone for an offense and at a subsequent moment, the memory of it comes to mind and I discover that the resentment I thought I had forsworn was but an ember, now bursting into a new flame.
I know and Jesus knows that I’ll always be a practicing forgiver. (I know and he knows that I’ll never be a professional; as in having mastered the sublime act, the supreme art of forgiveness!) Hence, the necessity, my necessity of limitless forgiveness.
© 2020 PRA