"Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age" (Mt 28:20)

"Seventy-Seven Times": Forgive Beyond Count

Vision of St Ignatius of Loyola at La Storta Chapel by Fr Timoteo Ofrasio SJ
P
eter 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" (Matthew 18:21-22). For our first consideration on the Gospel, I would like to pose a question, Is God subject to time or not? The majority position when it comes to understanding God’s time, especially among philosophers, is that God is eternal but temporal. What does it mean ‘God is eternal’? It means that God has no beginning or end. He is timeless and everlasting. However, the moment God started to be involved in human history, he cannot but work through time. Temporal comes from the Latin "temporalis," i.e. of time. God must respect the temporal succession of time like the past, present and future. When God chose the Israelites and promised to them that he alone will be their God and they will be his chosen people, God cannot help but enter the historical events. God has this temporal side. His existence, plans and actions take place in earthly time. At the present moment, he is listening to many cries of people affected by the pandemic. In the past, he was thinking about other things depending on the era. His dealings, like those of the rest of us, occur at particular times. But let us not forget too that God has always an eternal side. 2 Peter 3:1-10 explains that you can’t link human and divine time-scales: ‘with the Lord a day is like a thousand years’. In the Gospel we hear Peter asking Jesus if forgiveness was to be offered seven times. Peter like the rest of us was thinking with an earthly sense of time. Peter was concerned about the limit or gauge to the number of times that we can forgive others. It is a valid question which needs to be answered by Jesus on just how many times a person can possibly forgive.
When Jesus responded that forgiveness should be offered not only seven times but seventy-seven times, Jesus was not limiting forgiveness to any number for that matter, no. The number just means that if you can forgive beyond seven times then you lose count the next time or times that you forgive. In short when it comes to forgiveness, one must not count. The moment one has started forgiving the first time then is does not end. The true nature of authentic forgiveness is without limit or condition otherwise the forgiveness is diminished or lessened. In the human eye which is bound by temporal succession, it seems impossible. But it is really impossible unless God gives the grace of forgiveness. It was Jesus who demonstrated that God never tires of forgiving. He has shown that God offers forgiveness over and over, just as in the many parables of mercy.

Secondly, Jesus’s response is a dose of Peter’s own medicine so to speak. We know of course that among The Twelve, it is Peter who will be needing forgiveness not once but several times over. When Jesus said that we must forgive without counting, he knows us too well. We will never come to a point when we could ever say "I do not need to be forgiven anymore." There will never be a time like that. When that time comes and we begin to say that we are sinless then we go in front of the mirror and say to ourselves "Liar!" Such is the mystery of sin and of all our fragilities. This is the reason why Jesus says forgive over and over because our fragilities and human weaknesses will never leave us. It will just change perhaps in intensity and circumstance but they will remain until the end. That is a fact. And we must forgive endlessly each other’s fragilities. We must be patient as much with ourselves as with others. Jesus’s parable of the unforgiving servant follows directly after his “seventy-seven times” exhortation because Jesus would like to drive home the point that if we are forgiven especially if the debt is enormous, then we too must forgive those who sin against us. Clearly, forgiveness is not to be meted out in a limited fashion and to just a few. Forgive abundantly, over-flowingly and God's forgiveness must be obtained easily by all. What made St John Mary Vianney famous was not giving inspiring sermons like St Bernardino of Siena, or celebrating Mass with copious tears or taking care of orphans and abandoned people. What made him famous was what God did through him in his besieged confessional. For most of his forty one years in the town of Ars, he heard confessions of about the town’s entire population every day—12-14 hours in the winter, 16-18 hours in the summer. His commitment and dedication is superhuman. He was able to do it because he was open to the grace of God’s mercy and compassion, which is unlimited, to flow through him. We can presume this saint was like the servant whose enormous debt was forgiven but, unlike him, St John Mary Vianney stayed inside his confessional giving out forgiveness to many others in need of God’s compassion. St Paul writes to the Ephesians to forgive on account of having been forgiven, "and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:32).

Third point for our consideration is the condition of our world nowadays which is broken. We long for a world with less and less fragilities and woundedness. But in reality our world is becoming more and more broken everyday. This, too, is a fact. More and more families are broken. More and more poor people are getting poorer, even a whole nation of people. This is why Jesus’s call that we must forgive over and over is the only way we can mitigate the brokenness of our world. We may not be able to stop it but we can make it less severe, less serious or less painful. People who are broken are getting more and more hungry. This is the future, a world that is more hungry spiritually and emotionally. As a retreat giver, I can see how more and more retreatants do not just come for solitude but for some reprieve from this broken world. Men of the cloth, religious, seminarians and lay alike whom I have accompanied in the ministry are very much wounded. And this will even increase in the future. When Jesus came to live with us, we were already a broken people to start with. However, Jesus loved and will continue to love us despite it. St John Paul II said "Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song" (Angelus, 30 November 1986). We are already victorious through the victory of Christ who "turns curses into blessings" (Nehemiah 13:2), death to new life. But God needs our help too in turning curses into blessings and we can help God by doing our part through forgiveness not only of others but also forgiveness of our own selves. Amen Fr JM Manzano SJ

Comments

  1. I`m curious with the painting. Why did you choose it for your sharing? Thanks for the sharing. I`m reflecting on it.

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    1. Hi, thanks for asking... actually I did not really intend it. It just so happened I saw it in my folder of prepared photos... Upon second thought it is in this vision that St Ignatius heard God the Father telling him “I will be favorable to you in Rome” and that he would place him (Ignatius) with His Son. At first he did not know what it meant... it could mean persecution as well as favors. But he felt very consoled with the thought about St Paul who wrote that to be with Jesus even in persecution, in our fragilities, in our failures and brokenness as long as we suffer with Christ there is joy. GBU!

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    2. Thank you Fr. JM for your response. Ang galing! I can see the connection of the painting with your sharing and your response...

      Be placed with Christ,
      Accompany Him with His Cross
      By being with those who are suffering
      Even in failures and brokenness
      Through love and forgiveness
      Starting from oneself to others
      The Company of Jesus
      Companions of each other
      Companions of His Beloved Church
      To love and serve the Lord

      I now see the beauty and the gift of your life and mission as Jesuits, Fr . JM. Thanks to St. Ignatius and his companions too!
      Thanks ulit sa iyo. GBU!

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    3. Thank you for your wonderful tie up! St Ignatius indeed is patron saint of people who know they are sinners... patron of the broken people. GBU!

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    4. That's what I realized too when I first know his story through his movie. Giving me hope that a sinner can be a saint. St. Ignatius, pray for us!

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