Lord, how often must I forgive my brother? Answer: No less than 77 times.
Now, the Lord didn’t use the number 77 because Washington Redskins starting guard Shawn Lauvao wears jersey #77. Christ used 77 as shorthand for: always forgive the penitent brother.
Anyone ever seen Hamlet? That play would seem to have the opposite moral. Instead of “always forgive,” Hamlet focuses on revenge.
The evil uncle killed the good father, secretly, in cold blood, to steal the throne and the queen. The dead king’s ghost visits young Prince Hamlet, demanding revenge. Young Hamlet devises a stratagem by which to test the ghost’s story. Turns out the ghost speaks truth. So here comes revenge. At the end of the play, everyone winds up dead. No forgiveness; just brutal revenge.
Except: Young Hamlet and his nemesis Laertes forgive each other before they die. And the evil uncle Claudius tries to beg God for mercy. And the queen admits to Hamlet that she has done wrong in marrying her dead husband’s brother. And Ophelia begs mercy from God for everyone…
Christ told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate his 77-pardons theme. In the parable, the king intended to settle accounts. When he did so, no one quibbled with the accuracy of his records. His accounts showed his servant in debt to him. The servant did not deny it. To the contrary, the servant, presented with the truth, humbled himself before its very accuracy.
‘Yes, yes! I owe you big time! Just give me another chance.’
And the king took a haircut, as they say in the banking world—he faced the fact that he wasn’t getting the money the servant owed him. Then the king gave the servant a fresh start.
Thus do we see mercy and righteousness kiss: Everyone faces the full, ugly truth. Then everyone starts fresh. Mercy does not mean: no reckoning. It doesn’t mean running away from the truth; skip the facts; just pretend everything’s fine and nice!
No. Forgiving happens when the parties agree on the painful, evil, unpleasant facts. And then start over.
Prince Hamlet did not exactly proceed down the path of Christian mercy. He did a fair amount of stabbing with his rapier. On the other hand, there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. It would hardly have been merciful for the prince to pretend otherwise.
In fact, the greater the evil, the more merciless the truth feels to the conscience that, deep down, knows it’s guilty. Mercy does not come in the form of a goose feather pillow. It comes as a bracing, cold bath. But nothing can refresh the soul more. Facing the truth. And getting a fresh start. With all the dials set back to zero.