"Lord, how often must I forgive?" (Matt 18:21).
One reading of history suggests that the rule of law emerged from more primitive times in which a kind or reign of terror predominated. Roving bands of hunter gatherers competed over food, land, water and any other desirable resource in the struggle to survive. Might made right as tribes pillaged weaker neighbors, seizing livestock and enslaving people. It was survival of the fittest.
Against this grim backdrop, the law of the talon -- an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth -- was real progress. No more wanton killing and unlimited vengeance on someone who hurts you. Do no more harm to another than what was done to you.
The next level up, to "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," was truly a golden rule, advocating mutual interest and a proportionality applied to an otherwise Wild-West-anything-goes morality. The Code of Hammurabi and the Jewish Decalogue made possible rational societies with rules that brought some order and structure.
When Jesus preached unlimited forgiveness, he was drawing on an even more radical idea of compassion from Israel's founding experience of the Exodus. Because God had chosen to rescue the Hebrews from slavery and give them the Promised Land, Jews were to treat others in the same way. The Sinai covenant included the obligation to show compassion for alien residents, slaves, widows and orphans, the sick and the poor, because God had shown the same compassion for them when they were oppressed in Egypt. The measure of mercy was no longer justice but God's own extravagant mercy towards Israel when its people were nobodies.
For Jesus, this call to show mercy included even your enemies, those who offend and hurt you, those who are beyond your obligations to tribe and race, family and friends. Everyone is your neighbor, especially anyone in need. To love everyone unconditionally was to imitate your heavenly Father, who loves sinners and the righteous alike, who never stops forgiving anyone who asks for it.
Today's Gospel parable is one of the most demanding examples of this core teaching. How many times must we forgive another who offends us? Seven times seven? No, Jesus says, "Seventy times seven," or endless forgiveness. To illustrate this radical demand, Jesus describes a servant who is forgiven a huge debt by his master and then refuses to forgive a small debt owed him by a fellow servant. The message is clear: How can we limit our love for another when our very existence is a gift from God who has loved us unconditionally and beyond measure?
Just how radical this teaching was is seen in the way the Gospel writer (and the early church 50 years later) ended this parable. Outraged by the behavior of the forgiven servant who refuses to forgive, the king pounces on him and gives him over to the torturers until he has repaid his entire debt. This makes sense and satifies our own outrage, but it also contradicts the logic of the parable Jesus told. Can we speculate that the ending was added onto Jesus' original lesson about mercy because even the church could not abide such unlimited love as it struggled to establish order in its faith communities? It was simply too radical, like other teachings on poverty and pacisfism. There had to be some limits if the church was to survive internal conflicts and attract converts.
So what was Jesus intent? Perhaps the core of the parable and the heart of Jesus' radical call to mercy was his insight that if we limit our capacity to love others we will limit our capacity to understand the mystery of God, who is Mercy itself, unconditional love, endless forgiveness. If we narrow our vision and let reason and justice define our hearts, we will miss the grace God gives us to go beyond all human measure in our compassion for everyone, even our enemies. We will never grasp the invitation to love the unlovable, to encounter the Good Samaritan who rescues his Jewish brother who hates him, or the prodigal Father who astonishes his oldest son by taking back his younger sibling after he had wasted the family inheritance on sinful living.
St. John of the Cross said, "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love." God has loved us into being ex nihilo. When we were nobodies, God called us by name and loved us as his beloved children. This is the mystery we must embrace if we want to know God, if we want to be God's children as holy as God is holy.