Seventy Times Seven
Often in biblical writing numbers hold special meaning. Scripture scholars believe seven to be one of those symbolic numbers meaning “fullness” or “perfection” and we experience that number in the seven days of the week, the seven sacraments, the seven deadly sins, the seven virtues. For example, seven days represent the fullness of the week perfected by God in the Creation story.
Interesting that the sacraments and virtues, etc. are also seven in number, meaning they are fully named or revealed; the Church will not be adding to them. And so in Matthew’s Gospel that we heard this week, the answer to Peter’s question about how many times we must forgive our brother contains a message loud and clear: SEVENTY TIMES SEVEN! How is that for fullness? For the people of Jesus’ time it must have seemed nearly impossible!
What Jesus is teaching with this response is that we are to continually forgive, over and over again. Why do you suppose he would teach this? It may well be that Jesus understands the weakness of the sinner – the weakness of each and every one of us. And he should well know a bit about that, in that he experienced death on a cross to save us from the very sin that took his life. Jesus tells us that to forgive “your brother” once is not enough. What if Jesus forgave only one of our transgressions? Where would we be today and what hope would we have to one day be with Him in heaven? This is another one of those tough lessons Jesus taught for our sake, not for his. It is another example of how difficult it can be to become and remain a committed disciple of Jesus Christ.
Discipleship is indeed difficult and calls us to be constantly aware of our need to control our thoughts, our actions, and our response to others, even to those who hurt us in word or deed. A dear friend of mine, Fr. Robert Voigt, once shared with me that the most difficult thing he had to do in his life was to forgive a beloved family member who, in his words, “had done me wrong”. He shared how it took years of prayer and discipline to totally forgive this person. He also shared how the process was filled with anger and anxiety that continued to “eat away” at him. In the end, he found peace when he was eventually able to forgive. I think of Fr. Voigt often in my own life when I struggle to forgive others. Sometimes the others are people we do not even know, perhaps only hearing about them and their actions from news stories and yet we fill with anger and anxiety because of their actions. It is then that we need to turn to God in prayer asking for the strength and the wisdom to truly forgive them.
Now, forgiving someone does not mean we need to forget, for we often learn valuable life lessons in the midst of being hurt by others. Instead, we must be committed to working hard to forgive that we might continue to love and care about those who need our forgiveness. We do not have to be their best friend or spend a lot of time with them, but we also cannot speak of them negatively or try to convince others to reject them, for that would be disrespectful and simply lead us to sin in another way. This is not easy, as Fr. Voigt attested to, but learning to forgive others and continuing to forgive them helps us to grow ever closer to Jesus and the promise of eternal life. Let us ask Jesus for forgiveness for the times we have failed to forgive or love one another. Our shared faith in Him ensures He will hear our voice.
With trust and in hope,