Once upon a time, Jesus was teaching, and there were Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by. A paralyzed man was brought on a bed, whom they wanted to bring in to him but could not find a way to bring him in, because of the crowd. They went up on the housetop and let him down with his bed, through the tiling, into their midst and before Jesus. Something happened:
When He saw their faith, He said to him, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5: 20-21)
Once upon another time, in the house of Simon the Pharisee, Jesus encountered the sinner woman who washed his feet with her tears, wiped them with the hair of her head, kissed his feet and anointed them with fragrant oil. Something happened:
Then He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And those who sat at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7: 48-50)
As it was then so it still is now. Like those Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting by, Christian leaders fall over themselves and fall over each other to take a jab at the Sacrament of Reconciliation of the Catholic Church, making similar statements, to the effect that it is blasphemy to say that a priest that is human, can forgive sins. They hold that since only God can forgive sins people should confess directly to God. The Jews of Jesus’ time also believed in confessing their sins directly to God and this they practiced. They also did not believe that the man’s sins could have been forgiven. This is evident from what Jesus said, having perceived their thoughts:
But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, He answered and said to them, “Why are you reasoning in your hearts? “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins” — He said to the man who was paralyzed, “I say to you, arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Immediately he rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God. – (Luke 5: 22-25)
Obviously, what has happened here is that they did not believe that the man’s sins could have been forgiven since only God could forgive sins. There was no way they could have known from just the words of Jesus. Jesus had to prove it to them by doing another thing which only God can do. The forgiving of his sins they could not see but the instant healing of his paralysis they could see. Since both actions are what only God can do it should no more be difficult for them to believe “that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins”. People of our time also need to be assured that such power is real in a man on earth today as it was real that the son of man had power on earth to forgive sins. The fact is that Jesus himself delegated this power and it is working today. The scriptures inform us properly:
So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20: 21-23)
This is a passage where Jesus
- Commissioned his apostles, who were the first priests, in a mandate transfer chain from the Father, through him, to them. They would continue the transfer of the special dispensation in the appropriate way we already know – ordination – to our time and beyond.(v. 21)
- Empowered them spiritually in a sacred ritual which is like a sacrament – outward manifestation is the breathing on them and speaking the words “Receive the Holy Spirit”, inward grace is the actual receipt of the power through the Holy Spirit (v22)
- Assured them that any sin forgiven by them would be forgiven, meaning that they were then like the Son of Man who “has power on earth to forgive sins” (v. 23)
OF PREMIUM IMPORTANCE TO JESUS
When we observe the actions of Jesus and read his body language on issues we can easily see how he placed premium importance on some of them. It can be seen how he empowered man to be able to do such things only God can do. For instance, we can see the deliberate and solemn manner Jesus instituted the Holy Eucharist at the Upper Room during the Last Supper and how he ensured it is perpetuated (cf. 1Cor. 11: 24-27). You can also sense how the issue of Forgiveness of Sin was of premium importance to him from the foregoing discussion. Certainly, such high importance placed on Forgiveness of Sin is essential considering the very high destructive importance of sin:
- For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6: 23).
- But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear (Isaiah 59: 2)
- Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortionists will inherit the kingdom of God (1Corinthians 6: 9-10).
- Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14: 34).
Those are just a few of the scriptural references on the effect of sin – on the individual and on the community. Forgiveness brings healing from the devastation done by sin spiritually, to the individual and to the nation. God is highly interested in cleansing and healing and therefore would want people to turn from sin.
Say to them: “As I live,” says the Lord GOD, “have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33: 11)
If My people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2Chronicles 7: 14)
Confession is a very important component of Forgiveness. It is the means, after Baptism, of obtaining forgiveness for our sins. Forgiveness may not happen if a person does not want to be forgiven, and the person who wants to be forgiven should know the sin he has committed for which he would want to be forgiven, and be able to confess same. Desiring forgiveness shows the person is sorry for the sin committed. This is important because if the person who has committed sin is not sorry for the sin committed then there may not be forgiveness because if, in that case, forgiveness is given, it should be deemed not to have been accepted by the person and so the forgiveness is null and void and of no effect. Confession is therefore very essential to show that forgiveness is desired by the presumably penitent and for the cleansing of the individual, for the benefit of the community:
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1John 1: 9)
A COMMUNITY MATTER
Forgiveness is for the community and by the community. The community does the forgiveness of your sin and the community benefits from the forgiveness or your sin (cf. 2Chr. 7: 14). We as a Christian community are one body and, individually, we are parts of that one body of Christ. What happens to one part affects the whole body. Spiritual ill-health of one part necessarily diminishes the spiritual health of the whole body. The scriptures put it this way:
For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. For in fact the body is not one member but many – – – And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually (1Corinthians 12: 12-27)
In “A Christian Pilgrimage” is written the following: “Most of us are too accustomed to thinking of penance as a very private, individual mater. Sin, forgiveness and reparation are, indeed, personal affairs, but they are just as much community affairs – – – The community, the Church which is the spiritual community, should be concerned about our need. And the Church in Christ’s name is concerned about healing our spiritual illness”.
The community is therefore responsible for forgiving sin. We are called to forgive one another (Matt. 18: 21-35; Mark 11: 35; Luke 6: 37, 17: 3-4; Eph. 4: 2, 32; Col. 3: 12-13;) and each person is responsible for forgiving the other of the transgression that affected him. In the same vein the community as a body is responsible for forgiving the transgressions of one part of it, all of which necessarily affect this body, either by a direct effect of the harm done or by diminishing the spiritual well-being of the body by that part’s spiritual ill-health caused by sin, by virtue of its being an integral part of the body, or for both reasons.
This is probably why confession was made in the open, to the whole congregation, in the early years of the Church. This practice brought a lot of problem as can be imagined. This is expected given the fact that the congregation is made up of people of different attitudes, temperaments and dispositions. People affected in various direct ways might be in the congregation. Imagine a scenario where someone openly confesses adultery or fornication or theft or murder, and the people directly involved are there in the congregation – the husband or wife of the partner in the adultery, or the relatives of the fornicators or those of the murdered, or the person whose precious item was stolen and, perhaps cannot be returned or replaced anymore. Even when no such directly affected people were there, it can still be appreciated how the self-worth of the penitent suffered, especially as people tend to have this harsh centrifugal judgmental attitude and tend not to show understanding for the weaknesses of others even when they too are also weak.
This problem associated with open confession to the community – the congregation – might have reared up its ugly head in the Church of Corinth, in those early years, and that made St Paul write to them as follows:
But if anyone has caused grief, he has not grieved me, but all of you to some extent — not to be too severe. This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man, so that, on the contrary, you ought rather to forgive and comfort him, lest perhaps such a one be swallowed up with too much sorrow. Therefore I urge you to reaffirm your love to him. For to this end I also wrote, that I might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things. Now whom you forgive anything, I also forgive. For if indeed I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven that one for your sakes in the presence of Christ, lest Satan should take advantage of us; for we are not ignorant of his devices. (2Corinthians 2: 5-11)
It was necessary that a solution be found. The individual’s sin should not be for the ears of all or such problems would persist, yet forgiveness is the responsibility of the congregation, the Church. It is right to see the Church as a Fellowship of Forgiveness but it is difficult to get every member to have the required attitude, temperament and disposition as expected by St Paul. If the Church were just one person in the real sense rather than a corporate body of many persons, it would have been easier. That was, perhaps, why a decision was made to choose one person with the right attitude, temperament and disposition to be in the position of the corporate church to obtain God’s forgiveness for the penitent, to the benefit all. From the ongoing it can be agreed that the person should have that personality of Paul seen from his writings on this matter of Forgiveness.
AT THE CENTRE OF IT IS THE PRIEST
The most logical choice of one person who would stand in the community’s stead to obtain forgiveness from God is the priest. After all, the dispensation was given directly, ab initio, to the first Christian priests, the apostles, by the High Priest himself, who is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek, the Lord Jesus Christ. See how the scripture solved this problem:
For every high priest taken from among men is appointed for men in things pertaining to God, that he may offer both gifts and sacrifices for sins. He can have compassion on those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is also subject to weakness. Because of this he is required as for the people, so also for himself, to offer sacrifices for sins. And no man takes this honor to himself, but he who is called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not glorify Himself to become High Priest, but it was He who said to Him: “You are My Son, Today I have begotten you.” As He also says in another place: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”.
The priest was already discharging these functions from of old – standing for the people before God and representing God before the people. The difference is that the Christian priest received power to “take away” that sin forever, like the Lamb of God who gave them the power. He has yet another important qualification in that although he is weak, which makes him able to understand with those going astray, when he performs the function of the priesthood in persona Christi, (in the person of Christ) and as alter christus (another Christ) a state in which he has power to do some of those things known as what only God can do, the effect is as it is with the priesthood of Jesus Christ, as described in Hebrews 5-10, because Christ is perfected and a priest forever, doing these things on earth through them that he breathed his power upon and as he had done on earth then, the son of man who did what only God could do.
Pope Francis Confesses to a Priest
The priest is the minister appointed for this Sacrament of Penance (Sacrament of Reconciliation) and other sacraments of the Church. Sacrament is described as the outward manifestation of an inward grace. We see the priest performing what can be seen but we do not see that inward grace that follows, such as sins (including original sin) being washed away by Baptism, committed sins actually being forgiven at Confession, power of the Holy Spirit being received at Confirmation, the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, the dying actually receiving absolution at Extreme Unction, husband and wife really becoming one person spiritually at Matrimony and priests becoming what we have said they are at Ordination (Holy Orders). The inward grace in each of these is what only God can do.
Many did not understand the power Jesus had to forgive sins and so it is today that many still do not understand that power, now being used by the Catholic priest who inherited it, in a direct line, from Christ himself; he is called by God, even in his weakness and imperfection, to be the means through which He does His perfect works. He is ordained into the priesthood of Christ, a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.