Last week, Our Lord spoke to us about fraternal correction within the Church. Such correction is necessary if we are not to confuse the love shared among disciples with a benign and indifferent tolerance.
Peter, though, has a question for Jesus: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” (Mt 18:21).
Peter wants to know about the limitations of mercy, a matter of debate among the rabbis. At the same time, he has adopted the rather generous number of seven, a number that none of the rabbis had proposed.
Imagine someone committing seven different murders — and still forgiving them.
Imagine someone embezzling from the Church seven separate times — and still forgiving them.
Imagine someone committing adultery against one’s spouse seven times — and still forgiving them.
“I say to you, not seven times but 77 times” (Mt 18:22).
The disciples must have said, “What! Seventy-seven times?”
They must have thought to themselves, “Do you want us to be defrauded? To be taken advantage of?”
Our Lord then offers a subtle correction to this line of questioning by telling a parable.
A master forgives a debtor owing a huge amount the entire cost of his debt. It is forgotten. Erased. The erstwhile criminal now owes nothing, allowing him to get on with his life. This same debtor now shakes down a fellow servant for a much smaller amount, refusing to forgive the debt. He throws him into prison until the debt can be forgiven.
The master finds out and is not pleased. The debtor is thrown into prison where he is tortured until he can pay back the full amount: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35).
By the end of the parable, Our Lord has transformed the economic logic of the disciples relative to mercy. They want to count the mercy that is offered. They don’t want it to be too excessive.
Even with the radical forgiveness Jesus is offering, there must be a limit. But Christ teaches otherwise. The mercy we give is not ours to offer in the first place.
The Church is the community of reconciled sinners, who have been forgiven her great debts by God. Mercy in this sense is not to be stingily parceled out by the central bank of the Church. Instead, those of us who have been infinitely forgiven now infinitely forgive.
Mercy is the cost of salvation.
Of course, mercy doesn’t mean tolerance. After all, Our Lord Jesus told us just last week that we are to confront our fellow believers with their sins. To let them know where they have missed the mark.
Rather, mercy means we never should grow tired of God’s capacity to forgive the debts of a sinner: He “pardons all your iniquities, heals all your ills” (Ps 103:3).
It is not the Church’s responsibility to determine, in the end, who receives salvation and who doesn’t. In the sacraments, in her preaching, the Church is to make available the infinite funds of mercy from the bank of Trinitarian love.
This isn’t always easy. Sin means that we sometimes want to make divine love scarce. We want to exercise divine wrath.
But Sirach advises, “Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults” (Sir 28:7).
Those who have received much, have much to give.
And we’ve been given everything.
That’s the cost of mercy.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.