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Third Tuesday of Lent: Boundless mercy

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Today’s Gospel is not just about forgiveness but also concerns patience. Most of us have the capacity to show mercy on occasion. And yet we tire of being merciful quite quickly, and besides - one wouldn’t wish to be regarded as ‘soft’, to employ an adjective used in the North of England. 

We suppose that forgiveness and mercy are fine but have their limits. St Peter’s question suggests that forgiving someone seven times might be an appropriate balance. Seven chances to start afresh seems more than fair. Perhaps Peter thought that seven was an appropriate number because in the Old Testament Elisha commanded Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be made clean (2 Kgs 5:10).

Jesus replies to Peter by saying that we are required to forgive “seventy times seven” or sometimes translated as “seventy-seven times”. The point, it seems, is not about a finite number, but an infinite number. The same linguistic device is used in the Psalm 104 when the Psalmist writes “the word which he commanded to a thousand generations”. God’s command doesn’t stop at a thousand and one. This interpretation is supported by St. Jerome’s reading who suggests that the significance of the number seven is that it is one more than the number six, which represents eternity. On this account, Our Lord is saying something like “Forgive ad infinitum +1.” Thus what might seem a puzzling arbitrary figure plucked out of the air turns out to be a symbolic statement, rich in meaning.

Just as God’s mercy is boundless, so should ours be. Moreover the natural response to being forgiven by God and by others is to forgive others. Lent is a wonderful time to make a conscious effort to forgive someone who has hurt us. And once you free yourself of harbouring ill-will towards the person that wronged you, you might wish to forgive them something else. It can be rather liberating and infectious, in fact. Just don’t stop after seven times...

Samuel Burke O.P.

Br Samuel Burke O.P. Fr Samuel Burke is based in St Albert the Great in Edinburgh, where he serves as a university chaplain.  |  samuel.burke@english.op.org


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