“Not seven times but seventy-seven times”

How many times must we forgive one another? Is there a limit? Jesus answers these questions in Matthew 18:21-35.

Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
“Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive him?
As many as seven times?”
Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
‘Pay back what you owe.’
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
But he refused.
Instead, he had him put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant,
as I had pity on you?’
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.”

This is another of my favorite passages from the Gospels. It’s the place where Peter tries to put a finite number on how many times we must forgive one another, and Jesus says, essentially, there is no finite number. Sure, he says seventy-seven times, but it’s not the number that counts but the broadness, the depth of the forgiveness.

Even in Jesus’ story of the king and the servants, the depth of the king’s pity on his lowly servant’s debt, which he forgives, provides the example. And extending that example, Jesus takes the story a step further, telling how that lowly servant showed no pity or forgiveness to one like himself who owed much less. It was the depth of the king’s pity and forgiveness that matches the Father’s expectations for how we must treat one another.

It’s very had to forgive someone who has sinned against us or who owes us in some way, especially if they have shown a lack of respect in paying back their debt. But Jesus teaches us we shouldn’t forgive them just the few times, but the many. Not seven times but seventy-seven times. In His example of the king, forgiving it altogether. And Jesus teaches us, as we do to others, so our Father in heaven will do to us.

It may not come easy. It may take some work, some prayer and reflection. But forgiveness comes out of love — love of God and love of one another. And those are the greatest commandments, says Jesus. Sometimes love just takes practice.

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