Then Peter approaching 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.”
Depending on where you look, you may see Jesus’ words translated differently, as “seventy times seven times.” That, by my calculations, would be 490 times.
- The New American Bible, like the Jerusalem Bible, says “seventy-seven times.”
- However, a previous translation of the New American said “seventy times seven times” (490). So do the Douay-Rheims Version, the King James, and the Catholic Revised Standard Version.
- St. Augustine says 77 times; St. Jerome, 490.
Regardless of the translation you have in hand, the point Jesus is trying to make is that you should forgive, and then forgive again, and then keep on forgiving. No matter how much you’ve been hurt. No matter how many times you’ve been hurt. No matter what.
The first reading for today’s liturgy, taken from the book of Sirach, says the same thing:
Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the LORD? Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins? If he who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?
We’ll remember this lesson once more during the liturgy, when together we pray the Lord’s Prayer. “Forgive us our trespasses,” we pray, “as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
It’s easy to hear those words of forgiveness—or to let them pass unexamined from our own lips. It’s not that difficult to forgive when your spouse forgets your anniversary or arrives late to pick you up, or when your child doesn’t put away his toys. But some things are just so big that our hearts swell with the pain and forgiveness seems beyond our reach.
If we cultivate an attitude of forgiveness, allowing that virtue to shape our hearts…if we stand always ready to forgive small offenses…then we may find the grace to forgive the really big hurts:
- a friend who says something hurtful behind your back, or
- a spouse who is unfaithful, or
- a terrorist who flies an airplane into a building on September 11, killing thousands of our fellow citizens.
In the eleven years following the terrible events of 9/11/01, Americans have felt anger and bitterness and grief. We will never forget.
But forgiveness, Jesus reminds us, is not optional. By forgiving, we are freed from the emotional burden of anger; and by forgiving, we mirror the mercy of God.
I remember this song by White Heart, which was released in the late 1980s. The video is somewhat dated, and I am surprised to see how young the band members were; but the message is custom-made for today.