The Gospel today opens with a straight question from Peter. “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive him?” The answer Jesus offers: Seventy times seven.

Peter thought he was being generous for a good reason. In Rabbinical teaching, a person had to forgive three times, but no more. For this rule, the Rabbis went back to the Book of Amos and concluded that God’s forgiveness extends three offenses, but on the fourth offense, God punishes.

So big-hearted Peter doubles the Rabbis, plus one. “How about seven?” We can almost picture him settling back with a smile on his face. But to Peter’s surprise, Jesus isn’t impressed. “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.” In other words, do not set limits on forgiveness.

I am sure many of us want to ask Jesus if He is serious. Is He asking a mother to forgive the drunk driver who killed her daughter? Is He asking us to forgive every Judas who has ever betrayed us?

I’d like to make an important observation here. We must distinguish between crime and sin. You punish the crime, but forgive the sin. Some years ago, Pope John Paul II went to visit Mehmit Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate him. He held his hand and forgave him. He did not ask the Italian government to release him. The Pope forgave the sin within the crime.

Each day, most of us say the words, “Forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us.” But what does it mean for God to forgive me?

It does not mean God forgets what we have done. But it does mean that our sin is no longer a fact of history. For God to forgive us is to change us with His forgiveness. We become one with Him; we are a new creation. Only God can forgive like that. He offers us a forgiveness where the words, “I forgive you” tell the offender that he or she is different; transformed from an enemy to a friend.

We should make some gesture to others, showing that God can use us to change the human heart. The same God who reminded us that the sun rises on both the good and evil; that He sends rain on the just and unjust.

The Christian approach to reconciliation begins not with the offender, but with the victim. It’s terribly difficult; I don’t even think it’s always possible. But I simply claim this is what the God of forgiveness holds out to us, as the way to go.

My friends, it is indeed God who changes hearts, and we can be His instruments. Like John the Baptist, we can prepare the Lord’s way.

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