SO THAT YOU MIGHT KNOW THE SON OF MAN HAS POWER ON EARTH TO FORGIVE SINS, Jesus healed the paralyzed man. The reaction to this teaching of Jesus and the miraculous healing that he provided as a sign that God himself was the source of his power to forgive sins divided people into two opposite groups. We know from elsewhere that the scholars and zealous practitioners of the law, were not convinced by the healing, but persisted in their disbelief. They understood quite correctly that only God can forgive sins. To claim to share that power as Jesus did, they maintained, is presumptuous and amounts to blasphemy. In the end, the Jewish authorities were to persist in this position and to hand him over to be put to death for claiming not only to be a delegate of God but to be God himself. "We are going to stone you, not because of any good deed but for blasphemy because, you who are a mere man makes yourself God." (John 10: 33).
Others, however, marveled at the healing and praised God for bestowing such authority and power on men, the evangelist tells us. This is the literal translation. The text does not use the singular, but states that in Jesus God gives the power to forgive sins to men. That Jesus considered himself authorized to delegate his power to forgive sins to his apostles is evident from a passage in which he bestows this power on Peter, who in turn is , implicitly, given power to hand it on to others. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Mt 16: 19)" While, it might appear at first as if those who objected to Jesus' claim were defending God's prerogative in respect to offences against his authority, yet upon further reflection it become evident that these men in fact set arbitrary limits to God's wisdom and power. There is an egregious presumption in the position that claims to know what God cannot do. That is the point our Lord makes here: God can give power to men to act in His holy name. That He has actually done so is what the miracle wrought by Jesus serves to demonstrate to those who are open to further evidence of a continuing revelation. But faith is given only to the humble of heart.
Repeatedly in the Gospels God confounds human expectations by His manner of acting in the service of his loving plan of redemption. The virgin birth, the Incarnation, the marvelous powers of healing, the passion, the resurrection, the delegation of the power to forgive sins are so many manifestations of God's merciful love in the service of his design of redemption. In the early Church a keen sense that all serious sin against God was by that very fact a major affront to the community and required public penance, even though the sin itself was confessed privately. Once a believer had performed such a course of communal satisfaction and was readmitted to communion, he was expected never to fall again into serious sin. Should such a misfortunate lapse occur, nonetheless, he was left to his own resources. No second sacramental absolution was allowed by the Church's discipline. This was understood to be a heavy responsibility to assume successfully for the rest of life and explained why so many catechumens in this period, deferred baptism until late in life.
Only after some centuries was the sacrament of penance and reconciliation modified so as to provide for private penance and repeated absolution so long as the penitent was truly contrite and resolved to avoid future sin. The modern Church discipline then is a compassionate practice that takes into account human frailty and reflects the great mercy of God as Jesus, the Good Shepherd taught and practiced it. Prolonged reflection and experience showed the benefits of confession for overcoming not only serious sins but even such venial offences against love, justice, humility temperance, and the other virtues as we all commit at times, in spite of our best intentions. Human frailty does not permit anyone, St. Augustine maintains, to live any extended length of time without falling into some such sin.
The Gospel today invites each of us to resolve to take full advantage of the graces offered us by regular sacramental confession. Monks, to be sure, have a special obligation, deriving from our vows of obedience and of conversion of manners, to make such confession not only regularly but, as our Constitutions §15.2 prescribe, frequently. While monks have particular obligations yet all the faithful are called to a surpassing holiness that requires a great purity of heart. In pursuit of that purity of life and heart to which alone is promised the vision of God, let us determine to profit as fully as we might from this power given the Church to forgive sin. May the grace of this Eucharist strengthen us in this and all good resolves so that we contribute our best to the service of God's glory and to the spiritual good of those whom he calls to union with himself.Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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