Peter is struggling. Last Sunday Jesus referred to Peter as a Satan and told him to get behind him, that he was thinking as human persons think, not as God thinks. The self-emptying sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was difficult for Peter to grasp. Freely laying down one’s life in sacrifice for love was a hard thought to grasp. Forgiveness was not on his mind. Now Peter is exploring the limits of forgiveness. If one forgives another seven times for a fault that is intentionally committed against a person, isn’t that going the extra mile and exercising extreme patience in love? How much can God expect a person to suffer for love? Again, Jesus corrects Peter and says that seven times is not enough, it needs to be seventy-seven times. God, the Father of mercy and compassion, places no limits on the cost of forgiving the debt of sin that is owed him. Peter struggles with this demand of love. We all struggle with this call to be forgiving and merciful to those who sin against us.
Peter is a sinful man. Peter admits his sinfulness to Jesus when he is called to discipleship. Peter felt from the beginning that the weight of his sinfulness disqualified him from entering into the presence of God and finding new life in his love. Peter asked Jesus to depart from him and save himself the trouble of dealing with his sinful nature. This is the way that human persons think. This is the way that we all think at one time or another when we come into the presence of God. We know that we haven’t just made a few mistakes in our lives and suffered some setbacks to our quest for holiness. We live in a condition of sin. We have a sinful nature. We are inclined to sin again and again. Because of our sin, we have compiled a massive debt to God that justice alone cannot erase. We are not worthy to be called the children of God. We cannot undo our sins and we can never pay the debt we owe in order to live in the freedom of the children of God. We are slaves to sin and we are incapable of paying the debt of our servitude. That is the way that human persons think, that is our experience with life. We would like to believe that we can work off our debt and be restored to freedom but we know that this is an impossible task. Being forgiven even seven times would never even scratch the surface of the debt that we owe to God. Our only hope is forgiveness.
We can live in the condition of our slavery to sin and be imprisoned forever in life for the debt that we incur because of our sin or we can ask the Lord for his mercy. Our only hope lies in the mercy of God. Our only hope lies in the Lord’s willingness to forgive us our debts and restore us to an abundant life. Our debt needs to be forgiven, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Only love can forgive this debt and restore us to life. God is love and he proves his love for us in forgiveness. God pays our debt for us by sacrificing his Son Jesus for our sins. St. Paul tells the Romans: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.” (Rom 5,8f) The Wisdom writer Sirach instructs us in our first reading: “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight. The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance, for he remembers their sins in detail. Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Could anyone nourish anger against another and expect healing from the Lord?” (Sir 27,30ff) Believe me, we don’t want to experience the Lord’s wrath or vengeance. God doesn’t want to do a hateful thing, he wants to do a loving and merciful thing. God’s love is proved in his grace.
God’s superabundant grace rescues us from our imprisonment in sin and restores us to the dignity of the children of God. Because of our human nature we live in the condition of sin but God in his grace rescues us from our imprisonment to sin and restores us to his grace. Through baptism we are adopted as the children of God and given a share in his divine life of love. Sharing in the divine life, we no longer live in the condition of sin but we now live in the condition of God’s grace. There is a caveat to our sharing in the divine life of love with God. John expresses it this way in his letter to the Church, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.” (1Jn 4,11) If we have experienced God’s love in forgiveness of our debts, then we must also forgive the debts of others who have sinned against us. If we are in truth the children of God then we must act like God. That’s the deal. That’s the way that God rolls. That’s the way that God thinks. That’s the way that Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches his disciples this truth in teaching them to pray the Our Father: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we ask God to forgive our infinite debt caused by our sinfulness, then we must be willing to forgive others their relatively small debt that is incurred when they sin against us. Harboring anger and wrath in our hearts is not an option for us. Jesus concludes his parable with the warning, “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” (Mt 18,34f) If we feel we are justified in our anger, and refuse to forgive, then God will be justified in his anger and, well, we really don’t want to go there.
Our forgiveness is not just an “on paper” kind of thing but it is a “from the heart” kind of thing. It is an act of love and mercy. In the condition of grace, our hearts are united to the merciful heart of Christ. We can never “pay it back” to God for our sins against his holiness but we can “pay it forward” to others in forgiving them their sins against us. Our hearts cannot cherish grudges and harbor anger but they must be free to love and seek the good of our neighbor. Forgiveness allows our hearts to heal and to be made whole again. Forgiveness from the heart restores marriages, families, communities and our broken world to peace.
We live in troubled times. We are experiencing a graceless age. People are holding on to past injustices and injuries. We are witnesses to violent protests, angry shouting and accusations, looting and destruction of property and deep divisions in our communities. People feel justified in their acts of vengeance. Can these deep wounds of the past ever be healed? Is there any hope for a more peaceful future? Many of the people in the streets are our children. What are we teaching them? As Jesus declares at the beginning of Matthew chapter 18, the chapter from which our gospel today is taken, “Woe to the world because of things that cause sin!” (Mt 18,7) Our hope comes from the Lord who forgives our sins and calls us to forgive the sins of the past and to move on to building a future of loving communion. This is not going to happen in forgiving seven times, it will only come when we are willing to forgive seventy-seven times. The world is on fire with anger, bitterness, resentment and wrath, we need rain! We need the rain of mercy, love and forgiveness. We need to plead for our Lord to rain down grace and mercy from heaven. We need new hearts, born in forgiveness, not hardened hearts born in anger and vengeance. Our hope will only be certain and not disappoint, when the love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that is given to us as an uncreated grace. (cf. Rom 5,5) Peter struggled with this. It will be a hard lesson for him to learn. We struggle with this. It will only come to us by prayer and grace. God has proved his love for us in forgiving our sins, now we must prove our love for God in loving one another and forgiving the sins that have been committed against us. Forgive!