Seven or seventy seven? Is there a magical number?– 24th Sunday in Ordinary time – Matthew 18: 21-35
Poor impetuous Peter, he did it again! It’s almost like he must say something at every occasion. But then again, it sounds like a lot of people we know. It would be hard to doubt the intentions of this good man who often shot his own mouth. On this occasion, he sought to push himself to a new limit of giving, perhaps in the hope of winning the Lord’s approval. It bombed again!
Rabbinical Judaism recommended that forgiveness be offered just thrice. Peter, who by now is quite accustomed to the Lord’s call to love more and give more, now more than doubles the Rabbis recommendations to forgive. Peter offers a perfect number, one more than the recommended double. Besides, seven was a perfect number for the Jews. Seven sounded like heaven! So how could the Lord not appreciate this magnanimous figure that outdid the Rabbis in the forgiveness of one’s brother? He surely had this one right? Errrr….wrong again!
Jesus outdoes ‘Petrine generosity’, hitting it out of the stadium to seventy seven times. This sounds very nice as a thought, but practically the thought of keeping such a count of forgiveness would be tedious, to say the least. So why does Jesus set this rather insane figure? Is there some magic in the number seventy times seven?
Jesus’ parables and teachings are filled with ‘extremes’. He is always asking the disciple for more. That is the heart of Christian discipleship; the teaching that St.Ignatius held close to him, ‘let’s give the Lord more (magis in Latin).’ So the call of Jesus to His disciples is to love more, give more and forgive more. This is encapsulated in the parable that Jesus proceeds to tell, to make clear His point; a parable of ‘exaggerated’ forgiveness.
For the sake of understanding the ‘exaggerations’ let’s look at what a talent is and how much the wicked servant owed his master. A “talent” is a measure of weight, close to about 59 kilograms. If the debt was in silver, it would be roughly equal to about 15 years’ worth of wages for the typical worker. The king in our parable is owed 10,000 talents, or about 1,50,000 years’ worth of income, which works out to more than 3,000 financial life sentences. This is no little debt!
On the other hand, the wicked servant was owed by a colleague a mere hundred denarii. A denarius (plural = denarii) is a small silver coin that was roughly the daily wage for the typical worker. The servant in our parable is owed 100 denarii. Now compare the two amounts; three months debt verse three thousand financial life times. Get the point?
So then, what makes the inability to forgive, such an issue in our lives? One issue is when we begin to tell ourselves, “enough is enough. I have forgiven this person thrice and everything has a limit.” We set limits because perhaps we don’t want to be vulnerable. And understandably so! But Jesus is making a bigger point. The Christian nature of forgiveness has no limit for a disciple.
The call of Jesus is a call to tear down the wall of limits. Vengeance prevents us from moving forward, for it simply adds to evil. Jesus wants us to understand that Christian forgiveness is an extravagant affair. The king forgives extravagantly so that we may forgive in the same measure; for this is the prayer we pray each day, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”