Peter came and 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, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, `Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, `Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, `You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
The parable in Matthew 18:21-35 is a difficult and prickly one. It ends the section in Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus speaks at length about what relationships in the Christian community are like, a section in which he makes the same point over and over again: life in the community of God is the most important thing in the world, and that those who want to be members of it are called to do everything in their power to nourish and strengthen the bonds of the community.
In this vein, Peter wants to know exactly what is required of him. He is looking for a guideline, a limit to how far he must go with this relationship business. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times seven?” No doubt Peter is thinking that 7 is a lot of times, more times than most of us can forgive anyone, but he gets no credit for his generous suggestion. Jesus replies,” I do not say seven times but seventy times seven.” That is like saying that there is no limit to forgiveness. That forgiving those who have betrayed our trust is not something we ever get done. That it is not a favor we bestow seven times and then withdraw the eighth time. That the way of God is a way of life that never ends.
By the end of the parable, Peter thinks he has the message: do unto others as the king will do unto you. But that is not the message of the parable. I think that message is, “do unto others as the King has already done unto you.” God doesn’t keep score. God wants to remain in relationship with us that we may be able to respond in like manner.
The Rev. Dr. Luis León
Appointed readings for today: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 95:6-11, John 4:5-42