Our Gospel reading today is very familiar, but don't let that fact lead you into a semi-dormant -- 'we've heard all that before'-- attitude of mind; for, being the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Gospel, and even today’s short passage from the Gospel, is a fount of ever-flowing crystal water: no matter how much one may drink from this fount there is always water remaining to slake the thirst of all who come to it. In other words, in Scripture, and above all in the Gospel, there is always more available than meets the eye. So, let us now give our particular attention to the first two verses of the Gospel reading:
Peter 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”.
That such is the essential part of the Gospel reading is shown by the fact that the following parable of the Unforgiving Servant is only told by Jesus in order to bring out the meaning of the words He had just spoken:
I say to you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants…
Why did Jesus answer as He did? Was it done just to emphasise the need for us to have a forgiving spirit? Yes, it was; but we should remember that -- because those words are part of the Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit of Wisdom and Truth, and, moreover, are supremely important and precious since they were spoken by the Lord Himself -- we must, therefore, try to identify as closely as we can, just what Jesus was seeking to emphasize; and to do this, we must bear in mind the witness and teaching of the whole of Scripture. Only in that way will we come to wonder with amazement, joy and gratitude, at the wisdom and beauty of Jesus’ teaching, the Father’s Providence, and the grace of the Holy Spirit Who inspires words full of life, significance, and power for all ages past, present, and to come.
“Not seven times, but seventy-seven times” …. those words -- specially chosen by Jesus -- have an enduring significance, for they are first found in the book of Genesis (4:23-24) as part of Israel's millennial traditions:
Lamech said to his wives:
"Adah and Zillah, listen to me; wives of Lamech, mark what I say! I kill a man for wounding me, a young man for a blow. If sevenfold vengeance was to be exacted for Cain, for Lamech it would be seventy-sevenfold."
According to the Scriptures, Lamech was the great-great-great-grandson of Cain. In the verses preceding the words I have just quoted we read of great progress being made in the quality of life for the family of Cain: a city had been built by him, and we are told of livestock being raised, of artisans able to make tools of all kinds from bronze and iron, and -- for times of public rejoicing and personal pleasure -- there were players of harp and flute. As we would say, the economy was flourishing. But, just as we experience today, with the growth of prosperity and greater opportunities to seek and find pleasure, there came also an alarming growth in wickedness and sin. Cain the original sinner had begged God’s protection lest he himself be killed in revenge for his murdering of his own brother Abel, an action he learned to regret. However, when we look at his great-great-great grandson Lamech, we find him glorying in the fact of having killed a man for wounding him, and even of killing a young man or boy for hurting him in some unspecified way. Lamech, if provoked, would not hesitate to kill; and his character was so vicious that he recognised no distinction between young and old: it was his proud boast that whoever crossed him would pay for it; and he alone, Lamech, would decide both the price and the manner of payment.
Lamech’s viciousness combined with his over-weaning pride to such an extent that even the traditional tribal and family reverence for the founding father no longer meant anything to him:
If sevenfold vengeance was to be exacted for Cain, for Lamech it would be seventy-sevenfold.
Lamech was supremely vicious and vengeful and that was the way he would bring up his family; nor was he alone, for the society of which he was part would develop along those very same lines before, eventually, being destroyed by the God-sent flood. We see similar things today in Sicilian society, in the Balkans; we see it trying to hold on in Palestine and Northern Ireland; we remember the horrors of that same spirit of vicious revenge between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Africa. And going via Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe, and Idi Amin, we can soon touch back to Stalin's vengeful cruelty towards his own people and Hitler's consuming hatred for all things Jewish. Indeed there many regions of our world today where the cancerous growth of such vengeful pride and gratuitous hatred can be found.
With such things in mind we can begin, perhaps, to appreciate something of the importance and the significance of Jesus' reply to Peter’s question:
Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him, as many as seven times?
Moreover, we are also in a position to admire and rejoice in the wisdom of Jesus who knew both the beauty and power of the teaching of the ancient Scriptures, and also the full extent of human frailty and sinfulness as it would develop over succeeding ages.
Lamech belonged to the old world, that world made originally good, very good, by God in seven days. Peter and the disciples, however, had been cleansed by the word Jesus had spoken to them; they were now being trained to proclaim His offer of redemption to the whole of mankind, and would soon receive the power of a new and heavenly life when the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon the Church after the Lord's Death and Resurrection, enabling them to endow mankind, despite obvious weaknesses and many failings, with a faith and hope destined for heavenly fulfilment. The Flood-waters of destruction and death were to be replaced by the outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit of life and Jesus wanted Peter, the disciples -- and He also wants us -- to realize that we must turn our back completely on the old ways, and that we must always have total confidence in the presence and power in our lives of Him Who loves us.
Since we are all sinners redeemed by Jesus, since even the best of us are only earthenware vessels (2 Corinthians 4:7):
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us;
and since we are all aware of our own inherent weakness and repeated failings, we can all, surely, to some extent and in some way recognise within ourselves the threat of sinfulness which is, at any given time, ruling in some of our brethren; therefore we are supremely well-placed, and should be well disposed, to show in our lives that forgiveness which is at the root of all God’s dealings with us. In other words, forgiveness should be our characteristic virtue, and unforgiving vengefulness our most outrageous sin and most comprehensive defeat at the hands of Satan, as we heard in our first reading:
Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, you sins will be forgiven.
Mere creature of flesh, (if) he cherishes resentment; who will forgive him his sins?
That is why, when Peter questioned Jesus, mentioning the number seven which, for the Jews, was a number of completion and perfection since God had created the old world in seven days:
Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him, as many as seven times
Jesus replied so firmly:
I say to you, not seven times, but seventy- seven times.
This sort of thing goes back to the very beginning and reaches to the very heart of man, Jesus is hinting. Recognize the signs of your adversary, Satan, whose deceits of old brought about the destruction of those he led astray into pride and viciousness. You, however, are to be a new creation, and the perfection of the new creation is so great that seven is no longer suitable, only seventy times seven can suggest something of the supreme wonder of heavenly life beginning here on earth for you and in you. However, the devil is still at work, still trying to undermine and disfigure God's new creation and your souls too. You have seen in Lamech whither Satan would lead you, therefore be firm against him, forgiving:
Not seven times, but seventy times seven.
There can be no limit to our willingness to resist the old evils, because there is no limit to the blessings God is now both offering to, and has prepared in the future for, those who, in Jesus, will become His children. In our battle with the powers of evil we cannot just hold a line, as it were, a short distance from his positions; we have to distance ourselves completely from him because our calling is heavenly. The devil does not rest in his attempts to corrupt the children of God, but, though we have to be constantly on the watch, we can, nevertheless, have total confidence in the divine power at our disposal, for we are not participants in a stalemate confrontation between great and opposing powers, but sharers in Jesus’ victory which He has already won on our behalf, for us.
Lord, how often must I forgive? Not seven times but seventy-seven times.
To help and enable us to do this work -- which alone is befitting the new creation He has made of us, the divine power He has bestowed on us, and the new perfection to which He calls us – He, the One Who loves us, is always Personally present for us in Mother Church, continually abiding with us in our hearts, and sharing with us in our lives, through the gift of His own Most Holy Spirit: the Spirit of both the Father and the Son, the Spirit of our adoption as heirs of the heavenly Kingdom and children of our heavenly Father.