Franciscan Spirit Blog

Lent with Mother Teresa: Seventy-Seven Times?

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
—Matthew 18:21–22

In January 1973, Mother Teresa was interviewed by Ralph Rolls on a BBC program entitled Belief and Life. Referring to the conflict in Northern Ireland, Rolls asked her to talk about what Christians needed to do to bring peace to the region. Her advice was readily reduced into one simple word: forgiveness.“I have seen . . . several families that I have visited where someone was murdered or someone died violently,” she said. “There is no prejudice in these families. I have seen that these families have forgiven and don’t hold any grudges against the ones who killed their sons. I think this is the first step.”

She went on to say that it isn’t absolutely necessary to be a Christian to forgive. “Every human being comes from the hand of God, and we all know something of God’s love for us. Whatever our religion, we know that if we really want to love, we must learn to forgive before anything else.”

The kind of forgiveness of which Mother Teresa spoke was not the grudging verbal exchange that parents sometimes prompt their children to make: 

“Tommy, tell Susie you’re sorry for hitting her.”

“SOR-ry.” (Insert eye roll and a stealthy pinch when Mom is no longer looking.)

The adult version of this formula produces the kind of grudging acknowledgment of wrong that Peter is so quick to quantify and seek to limit in today’s Gospel. No, the “seventy-seven times” kind of forgiveness goes much deeper, transforming not just individuals but entire countries desperately in need of peace.

As Mother Teresa moved from one refugee camp to the next, she found that these places “were like one big Calvary where Christ was crucified once more. . . . Unless there is forgiveness there will be no peace. And forgiveness begins with personal attitudes.”

At the heart of “seventy-seven times” forgiveness is surrender—an acknowledgment of our own pitiful inability to comprehend the Infinite and the urgent necessity of relinquishing any personal “rights” to the inscrutable will of God.

It was this kind of forgiveness that prompted the confession of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). It was this kind of forgiveness that enabled the Samaritan woman to let go of her past regrets and wrongdoing in order to quench her own desperate thirst with the Living Water—and then run and tell the world about the gift she’d been given.

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And it was this kind of forgiveness that enabled Mary to endure as she stood beneath the cross, watching her beloved Son die a criminal’s death.

“Seventy-seven times” forgiveness acknowledges that I do not see the whole story, that God does not love me more than he loves those with whom I am in conflict. It is absolute surrender to Love, an extravagant kind of grace, an undeserved forgiveness that holds out a hand that may be refused. It does not swell up with pride for having undertaken the remarkable.

Rather, it makes itself so small that when the other person looks, there is only Jesus to see.

Such grace-powered forgiveness requires blind trust that does not waver even in the face of danger. When Mother Teresa sent her Sisters to Gaza at the height of a conflict, they discovered that the walls of the parish house in which they were to live were stained with the blood of a priest who had been murdered there just the previous day. “The Sisters held their breath as the Superior in an act of faith answered, ‘We stay.’”

Because “seventy-seven times” speaks not of our strength, but of God’s.

A Moment to Reflect

Think about the events of the day for a few moments before you go to sleep tonight. Do you remember a particular instance when you needed to forgive or receive forgiveness? Tell God about it.

Make a point of watching the news. Ask yourself: Is there anything I can do—perhaps especially in prayer—to bring peace to one corner of the world?

A Moment to Pray

Lord Jesus, help me to grow in forgiveness. Make me a channel of your peace. Saint Teresa of Calcutta: Pray for us!

Lent with Richard Rohr


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