There are two strong statements in today’s Scripture passages, one from the Book of the Prophet Joel that appears as the gospel acclamation and one from Jesus in the gospel. As is often the case, I am taken by a few words or a phrase, today being the introductory phrase of each citation that gives strength to the message.
The gospel is really about the wicked servant that is forgiven and yet does not forgive his colleague a debt. This parable is occasioned by the question to Jesus that says: “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how many times must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers: “I say to you, not seven but seventy-seven times.” There’s no question that forgiveness is necessary since the questioner doesn’t ask, “do I have to?” but “how many times must I forgive?” Jesus responds beginning with the frequently used, “I say to you” which often appears in the Scriptures as counter or more emphatic to a former statement of law, or to assure that listeners are really getting the point. And we know that “seventy times seven” means “innumerable” in Scriptural terms.
Reading backward from the gospel to its introductory verse, we hear Joel remind us: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart for I am gracious and merciful.” That message floods me with relief from the first two words, telling me that past behavior can always be forgiven if I am willing to turn my life around now. Even at this late date, God is still hoping for my return, no matter what came before. That is certainly enough to convince me that forgiveness of anyone in my life for anything they have done is the right thing for me to do. If God is willing, so must I be – 70 X 7.