How many times do I have to forgive my brother? As many as seven times? Today's gospel begins with Peter asking Jesus these two great questions. Jesus gives an unforgettable answer: more like 70 times seven.
One does wish for more commentary in the scriptures on the reactions of the people around Jesus when he comes out with these astonishing replies. What did Peter say or do next? Bang his hand to his forehead? Storm away? Send the first century version of an OMG text message to other disciples in the room? Seven times of forgiving someone seems like plenty.
As is often the case, Jesus sees it differently. He launches into a story about a man who forgives the debt of someone who owed him a huge amount. The person who is shown mercy, however, is not equally generous. He proceeds to go to those who owe him much smaller amounts, insisting that they pay him back, and creating trouble for those who do not. Next, the man who had originally forgiven the huge debt finds out about the person's actions and recants the debt forgiveness. The person is handed over to torturers until he pays his debt, which is more than he could ever repay.
This brilliant, multi-layered story suggests the reciprocal processes of life through which each of us is obligated to one another. Peter was thinking of himself as one who had forgiven generously – seven times, maybe! But he asks the question – how many times must I forgive – as though he himself were being tortured each time. It is as if the act of forgiving a debt were causing him pain.
The debts we owe to one another are kept on a ledger of sorts, in our minds. The balance of our human interactions and who owes what to whom seems to be something that each person attends to, with a quick, ongoing accounting of what's fair and unfair within the group. Other species seem to do this too – horses for instance, will notice if one gets more or better feed. The problem, though, is when these calculations take over one's mind. When a person begins to bend everything back to himself, thinking of each debt only in terms of what is owed to him, he begins to lose touch with this larger reality of his relative place in the nested obligations and relationships of life. When he continually ruminates on how he has been harmed, what is owed to him, to the exclusion of those around him, it becomes a kind of torture in itself. As the person loses sight of other perspectives, focusing solely on his own miserable grievances and with himself as the central character, he moves further from truth and more towards a confused version of what's fair.
There is much that's unfair in life, and Jesus in other passages is quick to take the side of those treated unjustly. The focus here is not about forgiveness per se, but the ongoing disaster of failing to cultivate a broad perspective and an understanding spirit. Not unlike a child having a melt-down, adults also have protracted bouts of insisting that the whole world owes them. They (we!) can convince ourselves that we have been magnanimous to others, without awareness of our debt to those who have put up with us along the way.
Staying aware of the challenges one presents to others and how others make allowances for oneself brings one closer to the truth about one's world. Seeking to understand the predicament others find themselves in, and how their circumstances came to be, can help to gain a bigger view on perceived wrongs. Getting curious about how others see a problem can help one to understand all that has happened. Letting go of a grudge and moving on is always worth a try. Seventy times seven tries!
Morning: Where could I use a larger perspective? Who could I talk with to find out more?
Evening: Where did I hold a grudge today?
Psalm 103:8 The Lord is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.