In our Pentecost Sunday gospel, as noted in this week’s post, to the disciples gathered in the Upper Room on that first Easter evening Jesus first words were: “Peace be with you.” His second words were: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” His thirds words were “Receive the Holy Spirit.” His fourth words were: “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:23)
Many scholars see a parallel between v.23 and Matthew 18:18: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The parallel becomes clearer when we know that the words “forgive” in John 20:23 are the Greek words aphiēmi and krateō which mean “send away” and “hold” respectively [EDNT 2:314]. But even with the parallels aside, the meaning, extent and exercise of the Matthean and Johannine powers has been a source of division with the post-Reformation Christian community.
The Council of Trent condemned the proposal that this power to forgive sins was offered to each of Christ’s faithful – something one often sees is commentaries from a Reformed perspective. The Catholic Church has always held that the power to forgive sin was to be understood as that ministry to which the ordained minister was called; something it had maintained as the teaching of the church and only formally declared at Trent when it was challenged by the Reformers. As Fr. Raymond Brown, the great Johannine scholar notes it is not a debate that can be settled solely on exegetical grounds – nor does the Catholic Church propose such a solution. The Church looks to Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.
If you would like to read another musing around this topic, take a moment and read a recent post, “Breaking the Chains.“