In this Parable of the Unforgiving Servant, the disciple Peter comes to Jesus asking a question that’s troubling him. “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” Part of the Rabbinical teaching was that people should forgive those who offended them three times. So, Peter, was trying to be more generous than the Rabbis. Maybe trying to impress Jesus by suggesting seven times which was considered a perfect number.
Jesus’ response (seventy times seven) surprises Peter. Seventy times seven! Seventy times the perfect number is an endless number of times. We should forgive with sincerity, no matter how many times someone asks. True forgiveness doesn’t keep records. True forgiveness does not say: “Sure, I’ll forgive you, but I’ll never forget this!” Or, “Yes, I can forgive you this time but this is the last time.”
The servant in Jesus’ story seemed so sincere when he begged for mercy, a little time to repay his loan, that the king gave him more than he requested. He erased the man’s whole debt. And what did the servant do? He went out, found one of his co-workers who owed him money, laid into him and began to choke him. When his co-worker begged for leniency, a little time for repayment, the unforgiving servant refused the gift he had just be granted.
When the king heard this, you can imagine his reaction. He became furious, called the unforgiving servant in, and turned him over to the jailers to be tortured until he paid back all he owed. One wonders how being thrown into prison enables one to pay back a debt. It’s next to impossible unless the person sells off everything they own, or if their relatives and friends set up a “Go Fund” on Facebook. Jesus’ point is that forgiveness is not about quantity. The lesson is clear. If we hoard God’s mercy for ourselves while showing no mercy to others, we risk forfeiting the effects of God’s mercy in our own lives.
Forgiveness is always a choice. When we realize how much God has forgiven us, over and over without keeping a record, shouldn’t that realization alone produce in us a generous spirit of empathy and compassion toward others? Twenty-four hours a day, day in and day out, we hear and see evidence of acts of domestic and national terrorism and violence as well as devastation wrought by natural disasters. We see how violence begets violence, and hate begets hate. This practice of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” only results in everyone ending up blind and toothless.
We can each begin where we are, in our little world, our family, our community, our friends. We can make a start with the first step Jesus gave us. GO! Don’t wait for the other to make an approach. Jesus assures us if we follow this first directive Jesus gave us, we’ll come to be like the child who was saying her bedtime prayers. As she went down the list of family members, asking God to bless them one-by-one, she omitted her sister’s name. Her mother injected: “Why didn’t you pray for Susie?” She looked up but paused. What didn’t her mother understand? “I’m not going to ask God to bless Susie because she broke my doll’s arm.” “But,” her mother said, “Don’t you remember Jesus said to forgive your enemies?” “That’s the trouble,” the child said with a sob. “Susie isn’t my enemy. She’s my sister.”
~Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB