Often as we meditate on the Person and Work of our Lord Jesus Christ, we see how through Him, God the Father accomplishes a reversal of sin and its effects. St. Paul clearly teaches that Jesus is the New Adam who obeyed where the Old Adam fell; and so Jesus also reverses the effects of the sin of the Old Adam (Rom 5:12-20; 1 Cor 15:22).
We see a similar reversal in the Gospel reading for today (Matt 18:21-35; 24th Sunday of Ordinary Time). In the course of the passage, St. Peter asks our Lord:
“Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” – Matt 18:21
Our Lord responds by telling St. Peter in verse 22 that we are to forgive not seven times, but “seventy-seven times” (as the NRSV puts it).
As 21st century Christians, we often see this as meaning that our Lord was teaching us that our forgiveness of the faults of those who sin against us should be without limit. Now, this is certainly true, as clearly emphasised by Jesus in the subsequent parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). But, as St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended in his Spiritual Exercises, to really grasp the depth of Scripture, we need to visually transport ourselves in our imagination to the time of the original audience.
St. Peter was a Jew, and as such he would have been well-versed in the Old Testament Scriptures. We often take for granted that we have the Sacred Scriptures so readily available to us. [As I sit at my PC, I can count 16 different Bibles that I have on my desk and bookshelf]. In St. Peter’s time, they didn’t have this sort of access to the written word. Much of what they knew was committed to memory, and probably mostly from the readings that they would hear at the Synagogue Sabbath liturgy (much like the way we hear the Scripture readings in any given Mass).
It isn’t unlikely that when our Lord uttered these words, St. Peter’s memory would have been stirred to recall an account in Genesis where Lamech, in uttering words of revenge, says:
“...I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” – Gen 4:23b-24
In the Septuagint, the Greek words used in the above passage for “sevenfold” (ἑπτάκις) and seventy-sevenfold” (ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά) are the same Greek words used by St. Matthew in Matt 18:24 for “seven times” and “seventy-seven times” respectively.
[The Septuagint is the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament into Greek – and it is the version that St. Peter would have been most familiar with].
So, we see that our Lord was most certainly reminding St. Peter that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness of others – just as there is no limit of God’s forgiveness towards us based on the merits of the once-for-all Sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ on the Cross of Calvary. But more than this, He was also pointing to the fact that He is the fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17); and as such, in His Person and Work, He reverses the vengeance of Lamech, and in its place emphasises the love and forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.
May this stir within us then the desire, not to follow the example of Lamech in seeking vengeance when we are wronged; but rather to be true children of our Father who, even though we have grievously sinned against Him, so loved the world that He gave His only Son for the forgiveness of these very sins. As St. Paul says:
“Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Rom 5:7
Thanks be to God for His unfathomable love.