There is a kind of ugliness that has taken over America and other parts of the world--one that distorts our humanity and obscures the imago Dei by setting us at odds with one another. Now, this ugliness as I call it is nothing new; it has most likely existed since the evolution of Homo Sapiens over a period of roughly six million years. From the moment we humans developed a tribal consciousness, we have believed the worst about those outside the tribe -- we have demonized them, scapegoated them, disparaged them, treated them as enemies, deprived them of basic rights, exploited them, abused them, enslaved them, even killed them.
Anger and hatred consume us, leaving us unwilling to forgive or to seek forgiveness from those we name as "other." Sometimes our rage is directed towards citizens of another nation, perhaps because of historical events, ancient or current. Or we might resent the presence of migrants and refugees because of the economic burden we imagine they are causing our country. Then, again, we may be prejudiced against people who are racially, ethnically or culturally different from ourselves; or against those from a different religion, socio-economic background or political party; or against those whose sexuality differs from our own, or who have disabilities, idiosyncrasies, and other characteristics that set them apart. Because of our tribal thinking, we see only "boundaries, barriers and dichotomies -- rifts between body and soul, man and woman, saved and damned, divisions wide as gaping canyons, bloody as war."
The "bloody as war" phrase is what worries me. In his speech to the Illinois Republican Convention in 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” At the present time, the United States is a house divided. We are Democrats and Republicans; those who "have" and those who "have not"; those with access to decent housing, education, and health care and those who have been excluded; those who are employed and those who are not; those who have food on the table and those who go hungry; those who are incarcerated and those who are free; those who have shelter and those sleeping on the streets; those who have a voice and those who are voiceless ...
Anger and hatred are simmering, fueled by divisions, stoked by inflammatory rhetoric, armed with lethal weaponry. On the one hand, there are those who, driven by a sense of entitlement, will cling to their advantages at any cost, from violence to lying, from intimidation to voter suppression; on the other, there are those who, crying out for a just world order, will not give up their struggle. Given this impasse, a peaceful resolution is unlikely -- unless, that is, we set aside our differences and work for the common good.
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Peter approached Jesus and asked, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Seven times?”
Jesus answered, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times."
Matt 18: 21-22
Peter's question immediately follows last Sunday's Gospel in which Jesus instructs his disciples on how to deal with someone who sins against them. Now, it is possible to interpret "the sinner" as a literal brother -- a sibling-- or as a member of the community. So, too, with Peter's "brother": is he referring to his bother Andrew, or to one of the Twelve -- perhaps the ambitious James and John (MK 10:35-45) or the thieving Judas (Jn 12:6)? Or is he just posing a hypothetical question in case his "brother" (or sister) offends him in the future?
From the text, it is not clear whom Peter has in mind but this individual --literal or figurative-- seems to be a repeat offender or Peter wouldn't ask if he should forgive as many as seven times. Moreover, Peter himself seems to think that forgiving someone seven times is generous; perhaps he even expects Jesus to praise him for suggesting this. Then comes Jesus' dumbfounding response: "Not seven, but seventy-times seven." 490 times? Is this what Jesus means?
The parable that follows is not specifically about forgiving an offender multiple times; what it illustrates on an allegorical level, however, is that just as God's compassion is without limits, so should our compassion be. In God's Kingdom, we will find abundant mercy but it is conditional upon our extending mercy to others. This is what we learn from The Sermon on the Mount where Jesus instructs the crowds to reconcile with their siblings before leaving an offering at the altar (Mk 5:21-24). And this is what we remember each time we pray The Lord's Prayer: "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."
PS Please note that forgiveness does not mean returning to an abusive situation or putting ourselves in harm's way. We can love -- and forgive-- from a safe distance!