Matthew 18:21-35, 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our Readings for this Sunday center on the theme of forgiveness. This theme is ever-relevant, sometimes too relevant that it makes us all uncomfortable. We are imperfect, and we are surrounded by others who are similarly lacking in perfection. Expectedly, we offend people and people upset us. It is just a matter of who draws the first blood.
If the theme of forgiveness does not disturb you, either you are too young to experience the harshness of life or you belong to the league of angels!
How do we respond to an offense? In the pages of the Bible itself, we find at least three ways by which we react to the wrongdoing of another:
First, we retaliate with the maximum violence possible. This we find in the story of Lamech, son of Cain. Lamech told his wives, “I killed a man who struck me, a young man who wounded me first… If Cain is avenged seven times, surely Lamech must be avenged seventy-seven times!” The idea is to strike back with greater damage on the offender partly as a deterrent to others. “Kung kusion ka, ayawg balos og kusi lang. Putla ang kamot sa nangusi nimo!”
Second, we retaliate in a way proportionate to the offense. This is the point made by Exodus 21:24 when it says, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. The idea is to regulate revenge by limiting it to the violation committed. If a person kills my dog, I hit back by killing his dog, but not his children. To a certain extent, this manner of responding is already an advance in comparison to the first.
Third, and finally, we do not retaliate at all; instead we extend our hand to and forgive the offender. In the Gospel for today, Jesus teaches Peter the mathematics of forgiveness. We forgive not only seven times, but seventy times seven times. It is unclear whether the number here is 77 or 70 x 7, but it doesn’t really matter, since the mathematics of forgiveness is not about reckoning. Forgiveness, Jesus is saying, must be beyond reckoning.
To be honest, Jesus’ mathematics doesn’t seem workable at all. We love the word “unlimited” when it comes to rice and beer, but it doesn’t sound possible when it comes to forgiveness.
But why does forgiving make sense even if it sounds difficult? For one, it benefits us in the practical order of things. Bitterness poisons the mind and leads to negativity. The psychosomatic principle tells us that our thoughts and emotions influence our bodies down to the cells of our kidneys. Our resentments will siphon out joy in our life, ruin our health and slaughter our relationships.
Beyond the pragmatic reasons, we forgive ultimately because God has forgiven us of our own shortcomings. We forgive because we have been ourselves forgiven. Plain and simple. Donagh O’Shea puts it beautifully when he says, “We are set free to forgive others in an uncomplicated way when we accept that our own books are not balanced either – that nobody’s books are balanced, that every human being needs another chance, and another: seventy times seven; in others words, endlessly”.
Today we pray for the grace to forgive those who have wronged us so that we can continue to follow the Lord with more freedom and greater joy.