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The central message for this weekend is forgiveness, but we can go deeper to ask, “What exactly drives the engine of forgiveness?” What does Christ mean by seventy seven times as against Peter’s proposed seven times?

Watch the little boy in the picture here and see. He's feeding the sick one lying down. Correct? But there is more to that, he is right in the moment, fully available to the little guy in bed. He enters completely into the situation of his sick brother. That little guy is moved with compassion to do what he doing for his buddy. We can understand forgiveness in this lens, too, stepping right into the situation of the other. I'll get back to that shortly.

The wise Sirach sets the tone with series of injunctions. There are consequences against holding grudge, against anger, against vengeance. The consequences reside in not doing it for the sake of God. To not forgive, yet expecting forgiveness from the Lord, would be like expecting a paycheck without work. The wise man warns us to recognize how human weakness makes us susceptible to sin and death. He asserts, “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself; can he seek pardon for his own sins?” Obviously the answer can be found in the beatitudes, where Christ speaks to his audience, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7).

Peter’s forgiveness proposal falls short of the standard set by Christ. Possibly, the disciples might have been in a discussion on that subject matter. Imagine when children bring up a question to the parent about a confusion they have on a topic. Or students come to their teacher with various answers from the same math question. Such children or students come to seek approval. So, Peter is expecting a pat on the back. What might Peter be expeting to hear from Christ? For Peter, that the brother be forgiven seven times is enough. Peter is likely basing understanding of forgiveness on the intellect and not on compassion from the heart. This is Peter’s thought (I didn't say Peter's feeling), “If I do it seven times, I would have done so much. I think I really did well.” But here's Jesus’ response, "Peter, forgiveness is not just your awareness for pardoning, okay. It is significantly your ability to enter into the situation of the one forgiven. Stop thinking, Peter. Go and do it. Keep doing it!" Hence Christ remarks, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” The Bible does not say anything about Peter’s characteristic reaction to this anymore. Jesus takes over because it is one of those teaching moments that he desires for his followers.

Jesus brings up a classical example of forgiveness by introducing a parable which he likens to the kingdom of heaven. Forgiveness is practical and not just a theory. It is active and not passive. It is moving out of oneself, not residing in one’s comfort zone. To forgive, Peter and us are indicted. If we do not see as God sees or as he wants us to see, we cannot forgive. God is the king who decides to settle accounts with his servants in the parable (Matt. 18:21-35). When the servant falls down before the master, here’s what sums up the message about forgiveness, "Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.” The response from the master is compelling,Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.” Our sins make us big debtors. We owe huge amounts. We constantly come with appeal for forgiveness. When this servant says, “Be patient with me,” what is he asking for? He is asking the Master to accompany him in his lack/emptiness.

Empathy is a word that is thrown around, mostly without properly understanding the depth of its demands. As much as it is used in psychological setting, it primarily challenges our Christian commitment. Empathy goes hand in hand with compassion. As defined by Merriam Webster dictionary, empathy means “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.” The synonyms of empathy include magnanimity, tenderness, pity, benevolence, kindliness, etc. Empathy takes you out of you, to become like the other. Empathy awakens forgiveness by moving the individual with compassion.

Think about Jesus on the cross and those last moments. He watches soldiers put nails on his hands and feet. He bleeds from his sides as they scourge him without mercy and from his head as they crown him with thorns. His eyes watch intently those who mock him. Jesus knows the flaws of his executioners. He knows they are not ready to say sorry at that moment. That they have no regrets for their miserable acts of wickedness. Jesus vicariously takes on their pains and utters those powerful words, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34). On the cross, the Master takes off a huge debt burden off the shoulders of humanity.

The human challenge is to fill the empathy gap. With empathy we can be patient. With empathy we can accompany each other in compassionate ways. With empathy we can go beyond numbers when a brother or sister offends us… not seven times, but seventy-seven times. It is about being moved with compassion… not about counting cost. We need a spiritual empathy to realize that we live not for ourselves, but for the Lord. Clearly, there is a give and take formula for forgiveness and it is this, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart." Mark that phrase, “from your heart,” not from your head.

Readings: 1st- Sirach 27:30-28:7; 2nd- Rom. 14:7-9; Gospel- Matt. 18:21-35

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