I am the oldest in our family. As younger siblings will do, my brother was fond of poking me in the arm.
“Quit it,” I would say. He’d do it again.
“Quit it!” Poke.
“Mom!” So she made my brother apologize.
And what happened next? Another poke, followed by a quick, mumbled apology.
Needless to say, I wanted to poke him. Hard. I had to restrain myself — and walk away. ( “I showed him. Didn’t stoop to his level.”)
Peter must have felt much the same. Rabbis of Jesus’ day taught that it was necessary to forgive three times. So Peter must have felt very generous and self-righteous indeed when he suggested forgiving someone seven times in a row.
Seven was a biblical number of completeness. There were seven days in the week and seven colors in the rainbow that God put in the heavens for Noah. Who needed more than seven?
After Peter, the number seven became even more important: seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven churches listed in the Book of Revelation. Seven was pretty special.
So imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus said we have to forgive 77 times. I would have had serious bruises after 77 pokes in the arm.
The first reading tells us that a sinner hugs anger and wrath tightly. Think about people who make you angry. Right now, think: “Who really frustrated me today?”
Someone in the parking lot? Someone in the checkout line at the store? Maybe a family member picked a fight just before Mass?
Just thinking about them makes you start to steam again, right? See how tightly you hold onto it?
And yet what is that anger and frustration doing? Distracting you. Even now. You’re not listening to the homily. You’re not joining in the singing. You aren’t enjoying the prayerful silence or being enthusiastic about the sign of peace.
And is it hurting the person who made you angry? Probably not. They’ve forgotten about it and likely, aren’t even there right now.
Jesus, however, is there. Right there in the Eucharist. Right there in the word of God you hear. He’s there in the people gathered around you. And hanging on the crucifix, there’s an image of him.
Somebody really poked him in the arm, didn’t they?
And what did Jesus do? He had some words for them, didn’t he? He really told them.
“Father, forgive them.” And he kept saying it, right until the end: 77 — or 490 — times.
Kasten is an associate editor of The Compass and the author of many books.