Seven and Seventy-Seven Times
What can I say? St. Peter is that guy that you got to love! After all, he asks all those dumb questions that you’ve always wanted to ask Jesus, but were too afraid to ask them yourself!
Take last Sunday’s readings, for example…
21 Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. 23 That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. 25Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. 26 At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ 27Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. 28When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ 29Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ 30But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. 31Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. 32His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. 33 Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ 34Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. 35 So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”
Who hasn’t had those sorts of thoughts or wondered St. Peter’s question? I know that sometimes I have to stop, take a deep breath, and just take a moment to breathe before I deal with my kids, especially when I repeat myself five million times… and they do the opposite anyway. (That might be an exaggeration, but only slightly. I think.)
Still, what struck me like a brick this time at mass was the phrase “seven times” and “seventy-seven times.” I’ve been studying Genesis lately, and just the night before the Sunday mass, I came across this exact phrase. Except in a radically different way. Check it out:
23 Lamech said to his wives:“Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;wives of Lamech, listen to my utterance:I have killed a man for wounding me,a young man for bruising me.24If Cain is avenged seven times,then Lamech seventy-seven times.”
Here, Lamech is bragging about how he killed a man. And, he references God’s promise to Cain. See, after Cain kills his brother, Abel, God curses him. But, when Cain complains and says that he’s going to be killed now with God’s curse, God promises that he won’t be killed — not without being avenged seven times. So, when Lamech kills a man, he claims he will be avenged seventy-seven times since he is that much more greater than Cain!
So Cain’s murder, which was horrific in itself, gives birth to a notion that genocide is somehow all right. And thus, the original fall of mankind, when Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, gives way to new and more terrifying consequences as sin eats up the hearts of mankind.
Here is an image from the Cuzco School depicting this scene in Genesis:
While Lamech tells his two wives the news, in the background, you see a slain man, surrounded by people. waving things around violently. A storm seems to brew overhead. And, in the meantime (as is typical in Cuzco art!) tropical birds fly all around.
It was because of these sorts of happenings in the Old Testament that the scripture of “Eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” came to be. Not to deprive people of their eyes or teeth, but to limit possible genocide.
And then, in the New Testament, Jesus turns that notion of wrath on its head. When Peter suggests a limited forgiveness, Jesus suggests a radical forgiveness. Where Cain and Lamech were on the path to destroying the world with their wrath and anger, Jesus was on the path to saving the world with forgiveness and mercy.
And so He did. And now He rules as the king of all!
Thank You for teaching us the way to live and for showing us how to forgive and be merciful to others. Help us forgive and be merciful to others. Forgive and be merciful to us as well.