We can best understand today’s gospel by knowing that Matthew organized his gospel into five discourses, or teachings.
- The Sermon on the Mount (teachings on the kingdom)
- The Mission (sending out the disciples)
- The Parables
- The Care of the Church
- The Olivet discourse on the last days
Today’s gospel is part of the fourth discourse, Care of the Church – how are we to care for one another, how are we to live in harmony as community? Two stories examine those issues and the challenge of forgiveness: Peter’s question, and the king and two servants.
Why would Peter suggest forgiving the other specifically seven times. It may have been that Peter was familiar with rabbinic teaching of the time, and taught by Rabbi Jose bar Hanina, which held that one must forgive the other three times, but not the fourth time. In answering his own question – how many times must one forgive another? – was Peter attempting to exceed rabbinic teaching?
Another possibility may be that Peter selected the number seven for its Jewish symbolic meaning. Seven is the perfect number. It symbolizes completeness and wholesomeness, the eternal.
Whatever the reason, Peter, hopeless braggadocio that he is, wants to impress Jesus. And, as usual, Jesus is strikingly unimpressed with Peter.
“Not seven times,” Jesus responded, “but seventy-seven times.” Through this Jesus episode, the evangelist Matthew is exhorting his Jewish-Christian community to forgive one another without limit.
To underscore this teaching, Jesus presents a parable, which compares God’s forgiveness to ours. The story is about a king and his slaves. The king, with great generosity, forgave the one slave the entirety of the immense debt he owes him. That same slave, however, refuses to forgive a relatively minor debt that a fellow slave owed him. Instead, he had him thrown in prison until he paid back the debt. When the king heard of the slave’s refusal to forgive a debt as his own was forgiven, he had him thrown into prison
What then is Matthew’s community – and we today – are to understand from this discourse on the Care of the Church? Just this: living in community is often, perhaps all too frequently, can be difficult, calling for great patience, and the need to forgive. Certainly, we see this today in a highly contentious and toxic climate of within the Church.
We, the Church today, are called to care for one another to build up the Body of Christ. We must forgive, not seven times but seventy-seven times, that is, without limit.
It is because of God’s limitless forgiveness to us, undeserving people, that we in turn cannot claim the right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow disciples.
Like the king who first forgave his slave, the initiative is with God. It is because God has first forgiven us, that we are expected, and through God’s grace, enabled, to forgive one another. We, as community of the forgiven, must be a forgiving community.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.