How many times?
Sunday, Sept. 17, Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 27:30—28:7; Romans 14:7-9; and Matthew 18:21-35
As a sequel to last Sunday’s Gospel reading, rules for fraternal correction within a Christian Community, Matthew adds a question proposed by Peter, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Why this question at this point? The rules for fraternal correction ended with a devastating act of exclusion for someone who offended the community and refused to be corrected, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Must the offender remain forever outside the Christian Community, shunned, ignored? The question of Simon Peter fits the context and should be interpreted in that vein. There is forgiveness for the penitent — forgiveness to come from the whole Christian Community, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.”
Simon Peter wants to be generous with forgiveness. Therefore he proposes forgiveness “as many as seven times.” Seven is a good biblical number used often to symbolize completeness. But the mercy of God is not determined by what passes as human generosity. Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” There is Old Testament history involved in Matthew’s catechetical handling of the number of times forgiveness must be offered. This back-ground is found in Genesis 4. Opposed to forgiveness is revenge, vengeance. As the Genesis story goes, Cain had slain his brother Abel. He receives due punishment from the Lord God. He was a farmer. Because he spilled his brother’s blood into the ground, the ground would no longer respond to his tilling and sowing. Cain worries and complains, “My punishment is greater than I can bear…. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer upon the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” The Lord God replied, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance (by God) will be taken on that person seven times.”
The story in Genesis 4 continues. One of the descendants of Cain was named Lamech. This man married two wives, Adah and Zillah. Taking note of his ancestor Cain, “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Here my voice, you wives of Lamech. Listen to what I am saying. I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech for sure will be avenged seventy-seven times.’” This little ditty is called “The Song of the Sword. The meaning was this: revenge was unlimited, even though the Lord God had limited revenge to no more than sevenfold in Cain’s case. Lamech was a considerable redneck. Blood feuds tend to exterminate whole populations. The Torah, the Law of Moses, took a step forward with a law that said, “…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The law of limited revenge, Exodus 21:23.
Jesus, the new Moses and the ultimate revealer in Matthew’s Gospel, corrects the old Moses. In Matthew 5:38-39 we read these words attributed to Jesus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil, but if one strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Can this even be done? Such Jesus-sayings make genuine Christianity difficult, but with the grace of God, it should be doable. But here in the section of Matthew’s Gospel called Community Regulations, Jesus insists on unlimited forgiveness, not seven times but seventy-seven times. No revenge at all. Lamech’s Song of the Sword is turned upside down, inside out.
And now, the rest of the story. There are other biblical passages on forgiveness. St. Paul to the Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if one of you is caught in an offense, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” One who has just read the first five chapters of Galatians may be astounded by Paul’s statement of gentleness. On the other hand, Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’ says the Lord.” (Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35.) There is also Paul to the Colossians, 3:13, “…forbearing toward one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” For a point of view that differs from today’s Gospel of unlimited forgiveness, see the Letter to Titus 3:10.
To close out the sermon on Community Regulations, Matthew adds a long parable attributed to Jesus. A king decides to settle accounts with his servants. One owed him a huge amount of money on a loan, but had no way to pay his debt to the king. The servant begged for mercy. The king was moved with compassion and forgave the whole debt. But that forgiven official looked up a fellow-servant who owed him a small amount. He demanded payment, turned violent toward his debtor, and had him put in debtor’s prison until the small debt was settled. The king heard about his forgiven servant’s lack of compassion, reestablished the debt, and punished the unforgiving servant. A final warning applies the parable to every Christian, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” The parable should end with a frequently used invitation, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”