Our families are all too human, but then so too were Jesus’ apostles. In the Gospels we can see unvarnished glimpses into the community life of the early apostles as they followed Jesus. These are not edited versions to make them look their best. What the Gospels show us is a group of men who were very human in all their strengths and weaknesses. In Matt 18: 21 ff we see a situation that should be familiar to anyone who has ever had to live in a family! Peter wanted to know just how much he had to apply this forgiveness thing that Jesus was talking about. He could see that a person might even have to forgive someone up to seven times. Realistically speaking, that is a lot of times to forgive someone who keeps messing up. Think of your own children or your spouse. We can get pretty exasperated when they keep doing something wrong. Surely, we want everyone to be accountable and that is, after all, reasonable. There has got to be a limit which once a person has reached, our patience is legitimately exhausted.
Jesus’ response is, in fact, rather startling. There can be no limit to our mercy and forgiveness towards others. That does not mean we are fools or turn a blind eye to real problematic situations or behavior. Christ commands His followers to help each other not fall into sin, to confront this when it happens, and takes disciplinary actions when members of the community refuse to stop sinning. This he sets out in the section in Matthew just before his teaching on forgiveness (Matt 18:15 ff). But then this is followed by His insistence that we must always have a merciful attitude to others. We can never say that a person will never change. We cannot know the mysteries of the heart nor can we limit God’s grace.
In family life, there are innumerable times when we have to forgive those around us in small things and in big ones. Forgiveness is the grease which keeps family life moving in healthy directions. We must seek never to have grudges, never to be spiteful, never to withhold mercy- no matter what. (Here we are reminded of Paul’s definition of love that he gives to the Corinthians / 1 Cor 13.) Again, Jesus clearly wants us to see situations truthfully and to intervene appropriately at certain times. But undergirding our every attitude and our every action must be mercy. Why? Because our heavenly Father is merciful to us. So we must treat others likewise. As Jesus teaches us, “Be merciful even as your heavenly father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).