|Memorial of St. Maximilian
Mary Kolbe, priest and martyr
Most of us know the story of Father Kolbe, the German-Polish
Franciscan priest who literally turned his life over for another in Auschwitz.
It was in the early days of the Nazi death camp, 1941. The 47-year-old
friar had been arrested and placed among the laboring prisoners of Auschwitz.
One of the prisoners had made a successful escape and the Nazi guards had
arbitrarily selected 20 prisoners who would pay for that escape with their
lives. One of those selected, 40-year-old Francis Gajowniczek, broke down
and screamed, “What will happen to my family?” At that point Kolbe
stepped forward and asked the guards to kill him instead, reasoning that
it would better serve their purposes to kill an older, sickly man than a
younger, fitter one. They took him up on it. A shot of carbolic
acid in a vein of his arm exploded his heart in moments. Gajowniczek
survived the camp and went on to live 54 more years. At the time Kolbe was
killed in his place, Gajowniczek had a bad case of tuberculosis of the spine.
His spectacular cure from that infirmity is one of the miracles that
were adduced in the cause of Kolbe’s canonization.
A few years ago, I found myself among a group of Jesuits visiting Auschwitz
in the company of an American rabbi. We were standing next to the
cellblock that had housed Father Kolbe, and a young Polish woman was telling
us his story. The rabbi interjected, “I’m sorry but I have to remind
you that Maximillion Kolbe published a magazine that carried virulent anti-Semitic
material.” The woman stood her ground, looked the rabbi in the eye
steadily, and said, “People change.”
Does any of this relate to today’s Gospel reading, the parable of the Unforgiving
Servant? I have no way of knowing if the woman’s words helped the
rabbi forgive Kolbe or if the woman was able to forgive the rabbi’s disturbing
interjection, but I have no trouble believing that Kolbe forgave his captors
and killers. His explicit imitation of Jesus makes that evident.
The “numbers game” that occurs in this parable is worth our attention.
Peter had asked, “How many times must I forgive? As much as seven
times?” As if to mock his how-far-do-I-have-go approach, Jesus says,
“Seventy times seven”—or 490 times, to be exact. But of course exactness
was exactly not the point here. Jesus multiplies the perfect number
7 by 70 as if to say “endlessly, limitlessly.” Then he drives his
point home with the story of a man who owes the impossible sum of 10,000
talents. Since our lexicons tell us that a talent was a huge weight
of silver worth around 10,000 denarii, and a denarius was worth a day’s
labor, we are talking a debt of 100,000,000 days’ labor. The man begs
for the debt to be forgiven, and by God he gets his request. No sooner
does he experience this immense forgiveness of debt than he encounters a
co-worker who owes him a mere 100 denarii—one millionth of what he has just
been forgiven! And the forgiven servant has the gall to demand immediate
repayment of that pittance. No one can miss the irony. Having
been immensely forgiven by the Lord, we are asked to forgive others in the
If Kolbe could muster it, so can we, with God’s help.