The question that Peter put to Jesus is one that many of us may have asked countless times and perhaps struggled with it too – how many times must I forgive? As we already know, forgiveness is an essential teaching in Christianity. At the time of Jesus, the Rabbis taught that forgiving someone more than three times was unnecessary (cf. Amos 1:3-13) where God forgave Israel’s enemies three times, then punished them.
When Peter trying to be particularly generous, asked Jesus if seven times was enough, thinking it would be given as it was more than double of what was being taught and expected. However, Jesus catches Peter off-guard by saying, “seventy times seven times” – figure of speech, surely.
This passage cannot just be seen on its own without reading the context where it is placed in Matthew’s gospel. When seen out of its context, this passage can be misused to justify injustice and even violence. The idea that Christianity calls for forgiveness in place of justice or that it teaches “blind forgiveness” is a total misunderstanding.
Does forgiveness mean turning the other cheek, allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of or being trampled on? Certainly not. Christians often get Scripture quoted back to them when it is to the advantage of the “aggressor”. Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was never to condone repeated wrongdoing, injustice, abuse or violence.
It is true that when a person is remorseful and seeks forgiveness, a Christian is called to forgive ‘seventy times seven times’ meaning that we shouldn’t even keep track of how many times we forgive even if we know at the back of our minds that the same may occur in the near future. “If your brother does something wrong, rebuke him and, if he is sorry, forgive him. And if he wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry,” you must forgive him” (Lk 17:3-4).
We should always forgive those who are truly repentant, no matter how many times they ask. It is true that forgiveness stems from the generosity of the one who forgives but it must also come from the humility of the offender to ask forgiveness. There are times forgiveness may be expressed in the form of “tough love” especially if it is required to break the cycles of violence or abuse.
There must have been a reason why the gospel today is placed between the passages on fraternal love (correction) and the unrepentant servant that follows. Perhaps it is to point out that forgiveness not only flows from God’s kindness and generosity but also from the generosity of the one who has the humility to acknowledge one’s failures, receives forgiveness, and then goes on to show mercy in the same way to others.
Forgiveness is central to Christian discipleship because forgiving and saying sorry are pathways to experiencing the freedom to love, that which God commands us to do. And for us, through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, contrition, confession, absolution and satisfaction (penance) is what reconciles us to the Lord and His Body, the Church, and the People of God. Amen.