Daniel 3:25, 34-43
There is something about the human condition that seeks the security and certainty of boundaries. If exact expectations are known and achieved, then one can feel safe and even validated. Little kids want to know exactly how many peas they have to eat so they can be done. Teens want to know exactly what time is curfew and how much flexibility is to be had. (Years ago the question that obsessed Catholic teens was "How far can you go before it is a mortal sin?") The attitude is basically "If you tell me what to do and I do just that, then I can’t be blamed or held responsible for failure or wrongdoing". As Peter asks, "How many times must I forgive my brother?"
Laws and regulations, do’s and don’ts, are important in the development of the consciences of children and young people and for their general well-being. But there comes a time in adult life when one cannot always depend on externals – laws, regulations, restrictions, penalties and rewards – to determine actions. One must look within to an interior sense of what is right and wrong, good and bad. "How many times must I forgive?" becomes "Follow the example of goodness and do what you think is best."
In asking his question of "how many times", Peter is asking for the certainty of a number, for the requirements and boundaries of a law, not more or less. He wants to forgive enough but not too much or too little. Jesus does not answer with a specific number or a law but with a story. And this story essentially says to follow the example of forgiveness and love shown by one to another. Beyond the law, look into your heart to decide how to treat others with the kindness that has been given to you. The king set an example by forgiving one official a very large debt. And that official broke no law and was within his rights by demanding payment of a lesser debt owed to him. But he was nevertheless soundly condemned because of his hardness of heart and refusal to follow the example of the kindness of the king toward himself. To be right is not always to be good.
Maybe Lent is a time to reflect on our own dependence on external laws and directives rather than on an inner sense of goodness and love. With Peter do we ask how much (or how little) must I do? or do we follow the example of Jesus who was willing to hold back nothing in his self giving to all of humanity.
Cathy Anthony is on the staff of St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.