After World War II, Simon Wiesenthal, who was a prisoner in a German concentration camp and who after the war became a Nazi hunter, wrote a book he called, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness (Schocken Books, 1976). The book begins with a true experience he had while he was in a German concentration camp.
One day he was taken from a work detail and guided up a back stairway to a dark hospital room. A nurse led him into the room, then left him alone with a figure wrapped in white, lying on a bed. The figure was a badly wounded German soldier, whose entire face was covered with bandages. With a trembling voice, the German made a confession to Wiesenthal. He told him about the brutal measures his S.S. unit had taken against Jewish prisoners. And then he told of the terrible atrocities that he himself had committed against them. Several times Wiesenthal tried to leave the room, but each time the ghost-like figure clutched his hand and begged him to stay. Finally, after two hours, the soldier told Wiesenthal why he had been summoned. He then said, “I know that what I am asking is almost too much from you. But without your answer I cannot die in peace.” The German soldier asked for forgiveness from all the Jewish prisoners he had killed. Wiesenthal sat in silence for some time. He stared at the man’s bandaged face. At last, he stood up and left the room without saying a word. He left the soldier in torment, unforgiven.
This true story about Wiesenthal might be considered by some to be an extreme case, but if you think about it for a moment, the story is not unfamiliar to most of us. To forgive someone the hurt they have caused us can be one of the toughest things that we are called to do.
I believe that blaming is instinctive. Children, without being taught, are always ready to point a finger at someone or something that has caused a hurt or an injustice. “It’s not fair!” are the words often spoken.
I believe forgiveness is an acquired virtue and can only be extended to others with help from God’s grace. This is because forgiveness goes against what is practiced in our society. Watch television, read billboards, listen to the radio and you will find that we live in a culture that believes in monetary compensation when an injustice or wrongdoing is committed.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that they have a special responsibility when there is a falling out between them and someone else. It is the duty of the one who has been offended to renew the relationship that has been damaged. And this is where it gets hard. It is illogical and unfair to expect the one who has been the victim to make the first move to restore a friendship.
When Jesus tells us to go to the person who has offended us, this puts us in a unique and usually unwelcomed position. The responsibility is placed upon us to take to the offending person the healing redemptive word of God without gossiping, without malice, or with any other hidden motives and to forgive the fault of the other with love.
There is a story of two men who, after working together, commuting together to work, and arguing with each other for years, encountered tragedy when one man’s wife died. His working companion of many years, wanting to console him, told how much strength and consolation he had found in his church. But his friend looked at him with anger and accusation in his eyes, and said, “We’ve been together all these years and never once, never once, did you invite me to your church.” Today’s gospel challenges us to take the redeeming Christ who saved us to all who are saved but may not know it.
Fr. Bob Kelly