What does forgiveness look like? Peter thought he knew. Wishing to appear especially forgiving, asked Jesus if he should forgive up to seven times. Rabbinic teaching at the time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was unnecessary, citing Amos 1:3-13 where God forgave Israel’s enemies three times, then punished them. By offering forgiveness more than double that, Peter perhaps expected the Lord’s praise. He must have been stunned when Jesus responded he must forgive 77 times, that is without limit.
In the parable, the king forgave the servant for a debt that would have taken him more than two hundred thousand years to earn; impossible to repay in a hundred lifetimes. But when a fellow servant who owed that servant a much smaller debt begged for time to repay, that same servant offered no forgiveness. Instead, he had him thrown in prison until the debt was paid. No wonder the enraged king had that ungrateful servant tossed into prison and tortured until his own staggering debt was paid. The parable concludes on a stark note of warning.
What does God’s forgiveness look like? It looks like what happened to a friend, Bill, who had been away from the sacraments for more than 50 years. Friends eventually persuaded him to return to the Church. But Bill was nervous about making a good confession. He purchased a large legal pad and began listing in page after page the many sins.
He took those pages into the confessional with him. But he had forgotten that the confessional box is dark, except for a small light below the kneeler, which made it difficult to read his notes. After telling the priest it had been more than 50 years since his last confession, Bill began. Or so he tried. He had to stoop down awkwardly to read a few sins, then get up to confess them to the priest. He repeatedly stooped down, got up, stooped down and got up to confess.
Finally, the priest said “stop! That’s enough!” Bill became terrified, believing he had made a wretched confession. Then came the words from the priest, “welcome home!” Bill wept tears of gratitude.
God’s forgiveness always far outstrips our own. And yet, we are to forgive others because God has forgiven us immensely more—77 times more.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.