Saturday, September 10, 2011

Seventy Times Seven Times: The 'Antidote' and Life's Healing Balm that is Forgiveness (Reflections on the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 18:21-35)

"Wrath and anger are hateful things,
yet the sinner hugs them tight.
The vengeful will suffer the LORD's vengeance,
for he remembers their sins in detail.
Forgive your neighbor's injustice;
then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.
Could anyone nourish anger against another
and expect healing from the LORD?
Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself,
can he seek pardon for his own sins?
If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath,
who will forgive his sins?" (The Book of Sirach)

Why ‘seven’? Why, of all the numbers, did Peter choose seven when he asked Jesus the number of times one should forgive? Why not nine or ten or a hundred? Was there perhaps, a significance to it? And why did Jesus correct him and say ‘seventy-seven’? Some other translations of the bible say ‘seven times seven’. Why ‘seventy-seven’? Why not ‘eighty-eight’ or ‘ninety-nine’. So why ‘seven’?

We really owe Saint Peter a lot in the gospels. It’s often his quick tongue and bumbling wit that draws from Jesus some very sharp but important teachings. Remember how at one point he gets Jesus annoyed and Jesus calls him ‘Satan’ and tells him that a disciple must be willing to follow his master’s footsteps?

Well, today, Peter does it again, except this time, he wanted to be on the safe side. In his mind, ‘seven’ seemed more than enough.

You see, the Jewish rabbis before Jesus had always taught that one must be willing to forgive three times, but not a fourth. In fact they taught that God only forgave sins three times, but that after the third repeat, God punishes the offender. Forgiveness was limited to three times. The fourth offense brought sure punishment.

And so Peter thought he’d impress Jesus by going farther than what Jewish Law allowed. He takes the three times and multiplies it by two. But just to be sure, he adds one more. Three times two, plus one; that’s ‘seven’.

In his mind, Peter must’ve been congratulating himself and feeling extremely generous. Surely Jesus would commend him this time instead of calling him ‘Satan’ or some other name. Poor Peter. It didn’t happen. Instead he gets corrected again. “Not seven”, Jesus says, “but seventy seven times” must one who calls himself Christian forgive.

What Jesus was saying was, “Go beyond what the Law requires. Don’t be satisfied with the bare minimum. Forgive again and again, because God has forgiven you, over and over again”. That was what the parable of the unforgiving servant was all about. His debt was so much greater that he should’ve been willing to forgive his fellow servant’s lesser debt.

But more than that, the truth is, forgiveness really does so much for us who forgive—at times, much more than for the one whom we forgive.

Forgiving frees us from the self-pity, the bitterness, anger and resentment that are often left in our hearts by the wrongs that other people do. Forgiving allows us to let go of bad memories that can poison our spirit, weigh us down, and harm our ability to live our lives to the full.

Forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting either. We have to remember, so wrong things don’t happen again. But we remember, not to imprison ourselves in hate, but so we can let go, pick up the pieces and move on. The human spirit, breathed as it is by the Creator himself, is capable of rebuilding itself, again and again, after every heartache, after every pain. But it must be freed from the prison of anger and bitterness that often chain it down.

And yet, to forgive is never easy, especially if the hurts run deep. How do we forgive those who kill the innocent, like those on September 11, ten years ago? Awhile ago, I received an email telling me one of my former students was killed by car thieves, shot in the face as he was about to get in his car. He was a very bright, devout and promising young man. How do we forgive God when we sometimes feel he’s abandoned us?

Without grace, forgiving can sometimes be impossible. And that’s why today’s gospel is one of the most difficult teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

As in all his teachings though, Christ never asks us to do something hard without telling us why. And today, he asks us to forgive even if it’s tough, because in the end, it is we ourselves who will benefit from doing so.

As those of us who have experienced forgiving know, while it can be extremely hard at times, it can also be the most freeing and liberating experience in life. For whenever we do forgive someone who has wronged us, we allow God to rid our hearts and minds of the bitterness and resentment that harm us. And we experience a sense of relief and freedom.

Peter thought he had already hit the maximum in today’s gospel. Instead Jesus says, “Try harder”. And he asks us to do the same. “Forgive and forgive, over and over, and over again”.

It will free our hearts, it will free our minds, it will free our souls. Forgiveness is the antidote to the many poisons we encounter in life; it is the healing balm prescribed by the great physician of souls himself.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)