This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 18:21–35:

Peter approached Jesus and asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times. That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan.

When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’ Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.”

Readers of a certain age will get the joke in the headline, which comes from a treacly film called Love Story. The 1970 film is definitely a product of its time, from its its star- and class-crossed lovers story all the way to the inevitably tragic ending. About the most memorable thing about the film is the line, “Love means you never have to say you’re sorry,” which not only got rated as a top-20 movie quote by the American Film Institute, it also got adapted into a song by The Sounds of Sunshine that played endlessly on top-40 radio for a while.

In fact, it became so ubiquitous that one of Love Story‘s stars, Ryan O’Neal, parodied it in his film What’s Up, Doc? two years later. Barbra Streisand says the line to him at the end of the film, O’Neal blinks twice, and says, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

In reality, we often owe most of our apologies to the ones we love most. That’s because we open ourselves most to them (and they to us), leaving us at our most vulnerable. Because we have not been perfected, and because we live in a fallen world, we injure each other emotionally whether or not we intend to do so. Sometimes we may even be unaware of the damage we do, the injustices that get created. The only way to demonstrate that awareness and to try to repair it is to ask forgiveness, and to actually forgive when asked — or sometimes even when not asked.

Peter asks this question in a very interesting way, too. He does not ask whether disciples of Christ owe forgiveness in one instance, but in seven. Why seven? Biblically, the number seven represents completion or perfection. Seven appears repeatedly within scriptures in this sense, and Peter would likely have understood that. When Peter asks whether seven times is sufficient, he is asking Jesus if seven instances are enough to achieve perfection.

Jesus makes it clear that perfection in this instance has no limit at all. In the version above, Jesus calls on Peter to forgive seventy-seven times; in the King James translation, Jesus answers, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.” Either way, the point is that perfection goes well beyond previous human understanding.

This demonstrates just how critical forgiveness is when it comes to salvation. If one followed the law by its letter rather than its spirit, it would be easy enough to tally seven times we let someone off the hook for their sins, and then feel self-righteous enough to condemn them ever afterward. That’s much more difficult with 77 times, or 490 times, either way one wishes to translate this Gospel. It’s very clear in Jesus’ answer that He isn’t prescribing a particular number at all, but instead demanding that our forgiveness become perpetual, no matter how many offenses take place.

Why are we called to this level of perfection in forgiveness? As Jesus explains in His parable, that is the measure of love to which we aspire in salvation. Furthermore, it is not a metric to be met on a ledger but a level of loving to which we must form ourselves in order to enter into it. This parable speaks volumes about hypocrisy and its consequences, but also to a failure to see past the law to grasp the spirit of love and mercy. In fact, it’s a failure to see past one’s self in terms of love, or more concisely, the lack of forgiveness for others is really being trapped in self-love rather than engaging in the Lord’s love, which abundantly embraces all.

Our first reading from Sirach touches on this formation issue as well. “Wrath and anger are hateful things,” the prophet declares, “yet the sinner hugs them tight.” Those replace love and mercy in our heart because we have not yet rid ourselves of that overarching self-love from which sin operates. Even more, we have not formed ourselves to trust in the Lord and to see others as our brothers and sisters in His family. We hold them tight because we want to order our own hearts and make our own condemnations, replacing the Lord in our hearts with our own will.

So where does saying “I’m sorry” come into this? If sincerely given, it recognizes that a harm has been done by us, and it also allows the other person to overcome that wrath and anger. It is not just restorative to ourselves, but also to those we love. This is why we confess our sins to God and ask Him for forgiveness, too. It is not enough merely to be sorry in our heart; we must take action to restore the relationship by purposefully repenting of the wrongs we have committed. Apologizing is an action and commits us to repentance, rather than passively ignoring the hurt and damage we have done by simply and silently feeling bad about it for a while. If the Lord, who can see into our hearts, requires that kind of restoration, it’s clear that our brothers and sisters will need that too.

The miracle of salvation is that the Lord will accept that repentance and offer forgiveness each time, no matter how often we stumble, as long as we sincerely repent for our sins. To form ourselves for eternal life in His presence, we must learn to do the same. Even for radio stations who still play that song fifty years later.

The front-page image is a detail from “Appearance on the Mountain in Galilee,” Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308-11. On display at the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.