"LORD, how many times should I forgive my brother?" Such was the question of Peter in today's gospel. And the answer of Jesus? "Seventy seven times." Other versions of the Bible have "seventy seven times seven."

Which is which: 77 or 77 x 7 (=539)? In reality, the number is immaterial. It is actually a figure of speech to mean "unlimited." And so, "How many times should we forgive our brother who sins against us?" Each time he sincerely asks for forgiveness!

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Oh, what a hard teaching! Actually, it is. Jesus knew this, the reason why he proceeded by telling a parable, if only to make it clearer. Accordingly, a servant owed his master a large sum but he didn't have money to pay it. Because of this, the master ordered that this servant, with his family and property be sold so the debt can be repaid. Hearing this order, the servant fell down to his knees and pleaded for mercy saying, "Be patient with me and I will pay you back in full." Moved with compassion, the master not only withdrew his command; he also cancelled the debt of the servant.

On his way, the servant whose debt has been condoned met a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and demanded payment. This second servant fell to his knees saying, "Please be patient with me and I will pay you back in full." But his pleading fell on deaf ears. The first servant refused to grant the request; he even ordered that the second servant be thrown into prison.

When this came to the knowledge of the master, he became very furious. He summoned for the first servant and said to him, "You wicked servant. I forgave your debts because you begged me to. Should you not have pitied your fellow servant as I had pitied you?" In anger, he handed him over to the tortures until he should pay the full of what he owed.

Thus, this parable would lead us to the realization that if God, who is perfect and holy, is merciful to us, we who are imperfect and sinful must be merciful as well to others. If God forgives us our sins, we should also forgive the sins of our neighbors. As written in the prayer Jesus himself taught us, "... forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins others have done unto us."

That this is a very important Biblical principle is shown by the teaching of true worship to God being preceded by reconciliation with neighbor. In Matthew 5:23-24 we read, "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother, then come back and offer your gift."

Forgiveness is a liberating experience. It frees both the forgiven and the forgiver - the forgiven, from guilt and remorse, and the forgiver, from anger and vengeance.

Truly, our God is a God of love, but he is also a God of justice. Justice demands acceptance by the offender that he has sinned, the humility to ask for forgiveness, and the resolution to change for good. The servant in the parable was forgiven because he asked for forgiveness. After having been forgiven, however, he did not reform his life. After experiencing the mercy of God, he showed no mercy to his fellowman. Thus, he was punished more severely.

Genuine reconciliation is therefore based on justice. Forgiveness is not a cheap commodity. We were forgiven for a precious price - the suffering and agonizing death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, forgiveness should not be taken lightly. We are forgiven so we can forgive others; we are forgiven so we can be restored to our dignity as children of God, turn around from our evil ways and follow the path of righteousness.