Simon Wiesenthal was an Austrian Jew imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp during World War Two, and in his famous book The Sunflower he tells a riveting story of something that happened to him there. He was working in the field hospital at the camp one day when a German nurse came to him and ordered him to follow her. She led him to a room where a lone SS soldier – a twenty-one year old man named Karl Seidl – lay dying. Karl had been mortally wounded in battle and had asked the woman to bring him a Jew so that he could make his deathbed confession.
For the next few hours Simon sat in silence while Karl told him his story – a story of growing up in a Christian home which did not support Hitler, of joining the Hitler Youth at age fifteen because of pressure from friends, and then at eighteen joining the SS. He told Simon horrifying stories of the atrocities he had participated in as an SS soldier – rounding up Jews, driving them into a house and setting the house on fire, shooting people as young as six years old, and things like that. After several hours, Karl said that he knew of his guilt and wanted to confess all these things to a Jew and to beg forgiveness of him, so that he could die in peace.
Simon Wiesenthal could not find it in his heart to speak words of forgiveness in the face of such atrocities; he got up and left the room in silence, without responding to Karl’s request. But after the war he sent this story to fifty-three prominent thinkers – Jews, Christians, atheists, philosophers, professors, rabbis, ministers, and others – and asked them what they thought he should have done. Was there a way in which a person in his position could have offered forgiveness of some kind to a dying Nazi? Their replies make up the second part of the book The Sunflower. Twenty-eight of them said no, offering forgiveness in this situation is not possible. Sixteen said yes, there was some way in which forgiveness could have been offered, and nine were unclear. Interestingly, of the sixteen who said yes, thirteen were Christians and three were Buddhists. Jews, Muslims and atheists who responded were unanimous in saying no.
I wonder what you would have said or done in Simon Wiesenthal’s position? I wonder what I would have done?
Our Gospel for today contains some straight talk on the subject of forgiveness. At first sight it seems to be a collection of independent sayings of Jesus that Luke has woven together here. And yet if we look a little more closely, from verse 3 to verse 10 there is a continuity of thinking. Jesus teaches us that when our brother or sister sins against us – the original language says ‘brother’, not ‘another disciple’ as the NRSV has it – when our brother or sister sins against us, we are to rebuke them, and if they repent, we are to forgive them. At that point his disciples might have thought “Wow – that’s a tough one! We’ll need to be a lot further along on the road of faith to be able to do that!” So they ask in verse 5, “Increase our faith!” In the rest of the passage Jesus corrects their misunderstanding of what’s necessary for them to be able to forgive.
As we read between the lines a bit in this story we come to understand that the disciples were mistaken on two counts: they had a wrong view of forgiveness and a wrong view of faith. Let’s look a little more closely at this together.
First of all, the disciples had a wrong view of forgiveness. My guess is that they made the same mistake on this subject as many do today: they were confusing forgiveness with excusing or with the healing of the hurt.
One Sunday evening some years ago I was preaching at a service at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, and a young man spoke up during my sermon to ask me a question. No-one has ever told the kids at EYOC that they aren’t supposed to do that! I had been speaking about forgiveness, and this young man said “So, if someone stole your car, you wouldn’t report it to the police – you’d just forgive him?”
You see, he was confusing forgiveness with excusing. Excusing says “What you did was no big deal, so I’m not going to make an issue out of it”. Forgiveness, on the other hand, says “What you’ve done was sinful and wrong, but I’m not going to exact vengeance on you. Instead, I’m going to continue to act in a loving way toward you”. But acting in love to someone doesn’t necessarily mean letting them get away with evil. Those of us who are parents know this very well: forgiving our kids and acting in love toward them doesn’t mean we let them get away with wrongdoing without trying to stop them and help them change. What it does mean is that we do what’s best for them, rather than what feels good to us.
In our Gospel reading Jesus is clearly not talking about excusing. He says in verse 3 “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them, and if they repent, forgive them” (NIV 2011). The command to rebuke is as plain and clear as the command to forgive. And it is important for the other person, too. If someone sins against me and causes me harm, it is clearly spiritually harmful for them as well. I am commanded by Jesus to point that out to them and to call for repentance.
I wonder if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of this sort of thing? Some years ago I had said something unkind about someone to a third party, and the person I’d been talking about had heard about my remarks. She was a lot younger than me, but nonetheless she very bravely confronted me with it, quite tearfully in fact, and told me how hurt she had been. I blustered a bit, but the plain fact was that she was in the right and I was in the wrong. Eventually I stopped blustering, admitted she was right, and asked her forgiveness. This young woman dealt faithfully with me according to Jesus’ teaching here, but then she freely forgave me when I repented and apologised. I was not excused, but I was forgiven.
So forgiveness is not the same as excusing. Neither is it the same as experiencing healing of the hurt we have received. I think that when many people say, “I can’t forgive him!” what they really mean is “I can’t get over the pain he caused me”. And of course that makes a great deal of sense; the healing of pain, especially emotional pain, often takes a very long time. If we wait for the pain to go away before we forgive someone, it’s likely we’ll never reach the forgiveness stage.
Now I hear you thinking, “Well, if forgiveness is not excusing and it’s not making the pain go away, what exactly is it?” Forgiveness is an act of the will. It’s a choice I make, a choice to continue to act in a loving way toward those who have hurt me, whether I feel like it or not. It’s a choice to accept the injury and to return for it love and not vengeance. I say again, it’s not about feelings but about actions. It’s well described for us by Paul in these verses from Romans:
‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”. No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will be heaping burning coals on their heads”. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good’ (Romans 12:14, 17-21).
Forgiveness is an act of the will, a choice to love another person, not matter how we feel. Why is it so important to Jesus? Because to refuse to forgive is to bind ourselves to the past and to refuse to move forward and grow in love. Clinging to bitterness, anger and the thought of vengeance is not growth; only love is growth. So Jesus gives us this command for our own sake, because he loves us and wants to lead us from slavery into freedom.
We’ve said that the disciples probably had a wrong view of forgiveness. Secondly, they also probably had a wrong view of faith.
Some of you may remember that in the old King James Version of the Bible the word ‘patience’ is translated ‘longsuffering’. A friend of ours used to say “Whenever I pray for patience, God sends me longsuffering!”. And of course, he would, wouldn’t he? Only very rarely does God send us a supernatural infusion of virtue. His more usual method is to help us to grow it in the same way we grow our physical muscles – by exercising them! Patience, in other words, grows by being used! If I don’t have opportunities to practice it, I won’t grow in it. So be careful what you pray for!
Jesus’ disciples were obviously overawed by his command to rebuke and to forgive. “This is far beyond us! We’re going to need a lot of supernatural help to put this into practice! Increase our faith!” They obviously expected that Jesus would somehow do this miraculously, as in his healings and his exorcisms. But the truth is that Jesus usually answers a prayer for more faith by allowing us to get into situations where we have to exercise our faith, so that our faith-muscles can grow!
It has often been observed that most of the stories of God’s miraculous healings in the world today come from third world countries where there are no expensive clinics or cheap drug plans. Those people have nowhere else to turn but to God, and so their faith-muscles get a lot of use. They grow in faith by exercising their faith on a daily basis.
How might God answer a prayer like “Increase our faith”. Well, if we as a congregation at St. Margaret’s prayed this prayer, one way God might answer it could be to allow one of our members who makes a major contribution to our budget to move to another city. The prospect of a budget shortfall might have the effect of forcing us to rely on God more and pray constantly for God’s help! So again, be careful what you pray for!
This leads us to verses 6-10. After the apostles asked Jesus to increase their faith, here’s what happened:
The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you.
‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’
This sounds really mean-spirited, doesn’t it? What is Jesus actually saying here? Well, it makes sense when we take it in the context of what has gone before. Jesus is saying to his disciples “You’re asking for more faith so that you can forgive as I’ve told you. You think that the problem is your lack of faith, but in fact it’s not. You already have all the faith you need. You are a servant; you have been commanded to forgive – not to feel forgiveness, but to forgive in action. What you need is not more faith; what you need is a little bit of simple obedience”
Last year I read this story in Brian Zahnd’s book ‘Unconditional’:
During the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917, one and a half million Armenians were murdered by Ottoman Turks, and millions more were raped, brutalized, and forcibly deported. From the Armenian Genocide comes a famous story of a Turkish army officer who led a raid on the house of an Armenian family. The parents were killed, and their daughters raped. The girls were then given to the soldiers. The officer kept the youngest daughter for himself. Eventually this girl was able to escape and later trained to become a nurse. In an ironic twist of fate, she found herself working in a ward for wounded Turkish army officers. One night by the dim glow of the lantern, she saw among her patients the face of the man who had murdered her parents and so horribly abused her sisters and herself. Without exceptional nursing, he would die. And that is what the Armenian nurse gave – exceptional care.
As the officer began to recover, a doctor pointed to the nurse and told the officer, “If it weren’t for this woman, you would be dead”. The officer looked at the nurse and asked, “Have we met?” “Yes”, she replied. After a long silence the officer asked, “Why didn’t you kill me?” The Armenian Christian replied, “I am a follower of him who said, ‘love your enemies’”.
This young woman didn’t wait until she felt the feeling of forgiveness or until she felt more faith. She apparently didn’t consult her feelings at all. She simply acted in obedience and offered the practical care that her enemy, the man who had injured her, needed in order to survive. And God honoured her obedience; her story is still being told today as an example of the forgiveness and love for enemies that Jesus commands of us.
No one is pretending this is easy; after all, we’re following a man who told us to take up our cross and follow him. But it is vital, for two reasons. Firstly for our own spiritual and emotional health; as we’ve said, to refuse to forgive is to bind yourself to the past with chains of iron. To refuse to forgive is to decide that the future will look exactly like the past: you hit me, I hit you harder, and so on, and so on. Only forgiveness has the power to change the future.
Secondly, it’s vital for the future of the Christian church – including our church. These days there’s all sorts of hand wringing in Christian circles about shrinking church attendance and proving that we’re still relevant and so on. But those aren’t the most important issues facing the Christian church. The most important issue facing the Christian church is this: will we look like Jesus? Will we live in such a way that people learn about what Jesus said and did just by watching our lives? Nothing else is as important as that. And of course, forgiving and being forgiven is right at the heart of the life and teaching of Jesus.
So today, let’s not pray as the disciples did, “Increase our faith”. Let’s recognize that we’ve already been given enough faith to do as we’re told. Let’s simply resolve that when we will leave here today we will indeed do our best to put Jesus’ words into practice:
“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent’, you must forgive them” (Luke 17:3-4 NIV 2011).