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TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME A


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In our Gospel lesson, Peter comes to Jesus and asks, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”

Peter is so earnest and so eager to do the right thing.  Peter must have done his homework. There is a rabbinic tradition that says a person should forgive another who has sinned against him as many as four times. So, Peter, earnest and eager, tries to be even more extravagant, and he adds three more times. He asks, “Should I forgive a person even up to seven times?” Seven times is a lot. It is three more than the rabbis.  Peter was expecting Jesus to praise him for even suggesting such extravagant forgiveness. 

Rather, Jesus turns and says, “No, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus is holding up a number so big that we cannot begin to calculate it in terms of forgiveness. Peter wants a rule. And Jesus says, “No, much more than that. As far as the east is from the west, that’s how much you should forgive.”   

I think Jesus’ response is a way of saying the question and what it is trying to measure is not quite right. The Psalmist says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our sins from us.” It is hard to put a number on that type of forgiveness!

And, yet many of us may still sympathize with Peter. We want to follow, and we are trying the best we can. But, perhaps like Peter, we would also like some benchmarks to know how we are doing.   For most of us, sometime in our walk with the Lord, we have probably asked ourselves: Am I doing this right?

Unfortunately, that question may be part of the problem.  The real danger happens when we start thinking of our character strengths as accomplishments of our noble, virtuous, righteous selves. Here, we can too easily slide into self-righteousness, we know what real forgiveness is, who is a truly forgiving person and who is not, who deserves forgiveness and who does not.”

Here we can easily forget that God seeks a relationship with whole human beings, every thought, word, and deed, everything, absolutely everything, that we are, and we do. And when we remember this, none of us, saints, or sinners, have a leg to stand on. We are all utterly dependent on the unconditional, unmerited grace and mercy of Christ, who has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west.

Jesus tells Peter the story about the unforgiving servant, a story where the numbers do not add up, because the numbers cannot be added up, when it comes to what Jesus has done for us.  

Jesus reframes the whole question about forgiveness. When it comes to forgiveness, we are all like servants who owe our Lord and King more than we can imagine. Try as we may to repay our debt through our character strengths or our virtues or our willingness to forgive, we will never be able to pay back all that we owe to God. But the good news is that despite our inability to ever give back to God everything we ought, God forgives us anyway, completely. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has taken upon Godself all our burdens and sins and debts and has forgiven them.

Completely, irrevocably, utterly forgiven and healed by Jesus. God is the God who forgives.

We forgive, then, because God forgives. The forgiveness that we are to pass on to others is the forgiveness we have in union with Christ. Not because we are moral heroes or because we seek our own wellbeing, but because we are forgiven sinners.

If we hoard God's mercy while showing no mercy to others, we risk forfeiting the effects of God's mercy in our lives.

 

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