Seven is a perfect number in Jewish symbolic thinking. So Peter thought he was being serious and generous in asking Jesus if seven is a proper limit to how often one should forgive someone. By responding with 7 x 7 (or perhaps 77) Jesus raised the issue beyond any mentality of quantification, but also pointed to a multiplication of perfection that also raises forgiveness to a quality or perfection that is beyond unaided human means.
What is more Jesus linked forgiveness from, and reconciliation with, God to forgiveness and reconciliation between humans. You only really receive divine forgiveness in a lasting way if you extend the same quality of forgiveness to your fellow humans. (See also Mt 5:7 and 6:14-15.) This is a tall order. Even at a human level, forgiving is often hard, especially if the offence was really malicious and /or repeated, or if the damage it caused was grave. But beyond even that, how can we possibly rise to exercising a divine quality of forgiveness?
I think the solution lies in the fact that divine forgiveness intends to really change us, to actually change our hearts and divinise them. In receiving forgiveness, if we are properly disposed, as well as removing the debt of guilt due to sin and the alienation this causes, grace is actually given to us to change us as well. In this way we experience mercy and, moved and actually changed by this experience of mercy, we also become more merciful. In other words, if we have been properly sorry for our sins, realise the seriousness of our plight and our need of gratuitously given mercy, and have a firm purpose of amendment, (and for an example of this see the first reading) then we will be changed by grace in such a way that we are more merciful to others. Our hearts will receive, but also be so shaped by, divine mercy such that we will be channels of this to others.
This did not happen in the case of the man in today’s parable. It does not trivialise sin. The man owed the king an impossibly large amount to pay back, expressed as the highest number expressible in a single Greek word of the most valuable coin. His fellow servant owes him approximately 1/600,000 of what he owed the king, an amount even a poor farmer could scrape together in a year. Yet he did not realise how much the king (representing God) forgave, and how much gratitude he should have, and how much it should have changed him. The cross of Christ expresses vividly, and even more eloquently, the scale of our debt to God and the gratitude and transformation divine forgiveness should work in us.
Through the parable, Jesus warns us that we can fail to really receive the Lord’s forgiveness in a way that will endure. As well as an appreciation of the scale of what God does, and of a proper gratitude we need to focus on fostering attitudes of compassion, of kindness, of approachability on the one hand, and, on the other, of avoiding bitterness, anger, aloofness – so as offer a forgiving stance, and to make practical reconciliation in which forgiveness among people finds expression, more easily achievable.
In this way, as Jesus says in today’s parable, we can extend to others the pity God shows to us (v 33) and forgive our brother from our heart (v 35). This means to put on the divine nature and to forgive as God does, in a liberating and creative way. And such forgiveness is of a quality that knows no quantitative limit. And it is evidence that we are truly living in the ongoing reception of the forgiveness of God.