April 16, 2009

tricky stuff

The majority of our Tuesday morning pastor's Bible study was spent dealing with the very uncomfortable commission that Jesus gives his disciples.  He begins by sending them out as the Father had sent him.  Then, he breathes on them and gives them the Holy Spirit.  And then he says, "if you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any, they are retained."

If you surveyed 1000 people throughout the last 2000 years of history, I'm guessing that the #1 question that group would have for Jesus is, "why did you give power to your church to retain sins?"

What this difficult bit of text seems to be saying, as far as I can tell, is mostly lost in translation.  It would be better to read it (and Bill please tell me if I'm wrong), "If y'all forgive the sins of any - they have already been forgiven.  If you retain the sins of any - they have already been retained."

So the job of the Church, then, becomes not the judge of what sin is forgivable and what sin is not, but instead the job of the Church is to discern whom God has forgiven and who He has not.  From my experience the former will include everyone and the latter, well the only people who God does not forgive are those who do not themselves forgive.  Remember that old prayer, "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us."

This small piece of scripture has been abused, a lot, and for that my heart aches.  But to ignore it because of its past is to allow that abuse to continue.  As preachers, we must work to find the spirit of the text and then educate our congregations.  We can't change the whole Church, but we can be faithful in our little corner of it.

1 comment:

BillMurrayIV said...

Ok, Steve, you ended up giving me quite the exegetical task. The literal translation for the verse is "Whomever y'all forgive the sins, they have been forgiven to them. Whomever y'all hold, they have been held." The plural "you" is understood in the verb conjugation. Of course, scholars and churches have argued about the plural "you" here. Is Jesus referring to the disciples and by extension the ordained community or is Jesus empowering all followers to forgive and retain sins?

The second part of each saying is passive- likely the divine passive so that it is understood that "God will act according to the first part of each statement." Good ole Raymond Brown has much to say on this verse (about 10-15 pages). He makes a quick reference to the verb tenses. The forgiving of sins is in the aorist subjunctive, implying that sins that are forgiven are immediately and eternally forgiven. The retaining of sins is in the present subjunctive which means that the retaining continues into the future.

The more interesting thing to note is the Brown ultimately believes that the emphasis is on sin more than on people. Jesus is granting the power to "isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those he commissions." (1044, vol. II) I have to say that I like the interpretation that Jesus is focusing on how to overcome and isolate evil more than attempting to punish the individual. I sitll have two commentaries I want to look at on this idea though . . .

hope Eliza is sleeping well!