Today's gospel most of us know well. How many times must I forgive? In Matthew's gospel, 77 times, 7 being the number that represents perfection, God.
We also get the parable of the two servants. One was forgiven by the master, but he in turn refused to forgive another servant who owed him.
While we tend to focus on the aspect of forgiveness, it seems a good idea to go back step. Before I can forgive someone, there has to be something that needs forgiving, an offense. And there a judgement is made.
A person steps on my foot. They reflexively say, "Excuse me", because they are well-mannered. But is there really anything to excuse? Suppose it was an accident in a crowded elevator. Is there anything to forgive? No, because there was no intentionality. And how paranoid would I have to be in a crowded elevator to think that the person stepped on my foot on purpose?
And yet, we do seem to have the ability to find offense where there is none. What is it about us that we see intentionality and sinister motives in the smallest things? I've been a priest for 25 years and worked as part of the diocesan staff for 14. I never cease to be amazed at the times when, a person's name is accidentally left off of a thank you or invitation list and they get into a snit, convinced that it was intentional. Or those who act as if the Bishop has nothing more to do all day than sit around and plot against them.
Before we get to the question of how many times we have to forgive a person, perhaps we need to look to see if there is a genuine offense or are we dealing with a case of our own skewed perception.
We need to admit that we all operate on double, triple and quadruple standards. We have:
the standard by which we measure ourselves,
the one we use for people we love,
the one for people we like,
the one for people we don't know,
the one for people we don't like,
the one for people who happen to belong to groups we don't like or trust.
And those are just a few of the possibilities.
Time and again Jesus reminds us that the ruler we use to measure others will be the one with which we will be measured at the final judgement.
Most of us are doing well if we can accurately judge our own motives for all of our actions. And if we spend our times attending to our own motivations and actions, we will have very little time to devote to judging others. In our America criminal legal system a person is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Try applying that rule to your family members, neighbors, coworkers. Perhaps you will find that you don't need to forgive 77 times, because there aren't anywhere near that number of actual offenses. Short absolute proof we should always give the benefit of the doubt. That is part of loving thy neighbor.