I Must Forgive How Many Times?

Today’s gospel message is easy to understand, but very difficult to practice. Jesus preaches on forgiveness. Many times we may feel like Peter asking God, “Lord, just how many times must I forgive? Lord you know I’m hurt, I’m emotionally in pain! This person really offended me or my family, and you expect me to forgive him?”  I want to offer some commentary on this gospel as well as insight on Christian forgiveness.

Two common literary devices (figures of speech) used in the gospels are numerology and imagery. Sometimes the gospel speaks to us on a symbolic/spiritual level. Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times”(Mt 18:22-22). Jesus does not mean that we cannot forgive someone once they offended us the 78th time or more. The number 7 in Scripture symbolizes divine perfection. For instance in Genesis, God creates the world in 6 days, but on the 7th day He rested and sanctified that day. So when Jesus responds not seven times, but seventy-seven times, he emphasizes limitless forgiveness and mercy. As Christians, we are called to forgive each other from the heart, just as God has forgiven us in Christ.

Imagery is the other literary tool Jesus uses here. He tells us the story of the King who forgave his servant an enormous debt. This servant then forgets the mercy shown to him, and refuses to forgive his brother servant a much smaller debt. The King represents God and we are the servants. Jesus reminds us that as sinners, we had a debt that we could not pay back. God out of love and mercy, chose to send His Son to redeem the world and reconcile us back to Him. As servants, the Lord invites us to practice forgiveness as well.It is not easy and it will take time in some relationships. Whenever we gaze at the Crucifix in Church, we are reminded that we were forgiven from the eternal debt of sin. As a result, we must be willing to forgive much smaller debts.

Lastly, I want to offer two insights on Christian forgiveness. First, forgiveness is not a feeling, but a choice. It is an act of my will. Naturally, when someone  sins against me, I will get hurt. Maybe some of you have been really hurt in your families and I can only imagine how painful it must feel. However, like a bodily wound it will take time (years) for healing to occur. Jesus is not commanding me to like this person or to make him my best friend. Jesus is also not requiring me to forget. Forgiveness is a choice I make to say, “I won’t allow hatred or revenge to consume me or dictate my behavior”. Instead I will pray for this person and focus on Jesus, because He forgives me for my sins. Secondly, forgiveness means I must be kind. God is not requiring me to go out of my way to speak to this person or see a movie with him. At the same time, ifI see this person I still must be respectful. It is unchristian for me to be rude or to talk bad about this person to anyone willing to listen. A fruit of forgiveness is kind and respectful behavior.

Again, some of you have been hurt and it will take much time for personally healing to happen and relationship wounds to heal. This is understandable. Jesus offers us a path of forgiveness not just for our offenders, but for us as well. When we forgive others, healing and change occurs in us! Hateful and unkind emotions/behaviors have no more power over us and we are free to move forward in faith. I pray that the Lord gives us the grace to bring spiritual and emotional healing to those in need and we thank Him for His limitless forgiveness.

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