Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus, in today’s Gospel (Matthew 18:21-35), tells the disciples to forgive one’s sibling not seven times but seventy-seven times. Maybe if you’re like me, you might find this number still a little low to account for every time we messed up or said something hurtful. Is Jesus’s limit actually seventy-seven? Can we only ask for forgiveness that many times before God’s had enough? Clearly not. Seventy-seven is a number that signifies a limitless extension of mercy that comes from a reference in Genesis.
Cain kills Abel and then is expelled from the land, but Cain complains to God that he will be avenged for Abel’s death as a wanderer. God promises Cain that if anyone kills Cain, then God will avenge Cain’s potential killer seven times. After this episode, Lamech, one of Cain’s distant descendents, kills a man who has wounded him. And Lamech says, “If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Genesis 4). All of this shows that violence expands after Cain’s first act. There is no mercy but only more injury.
Jesus takes this concept and applies it to mercy. The disciples are good people who want to forgive seven times, but with Jesus, mercy is expanded. In fact, mercy will continue to virtuously spiral toward infinity. There is no limit to mercy; there can only be more mercy.
Being merciful does not mean being a doormat. But it means we don’t have to extend the death penalty to those who stub our toes. We don’t have to hang those who speak behind our backs. We must confront those injuries with prudence, but we can do so mercifully.
Who am I, though? Am I someone who holds grudges, seeks revenge, or tries to get back at others for injuring me? Do I increase the cycle of violence, physically, verbally, or emotionally? Or am I a Christian who continues to forgive? Do I seek to forgive others in my heart and recognize my need for mercy? Can I see the human being behind the enemy’s flag? Am I Lamech or am I Christ?