I gave this homily during a Eucharistic Exposition and Solemn Benediction this evening.
The gospel reading this evening is easy to misinterpret because of the translation we use. So it’s always helpful in such circumstances to go back to the early Church Fathers and see how they read these passages. I want to focus on two themes that appear in this passage. The first is the matter of fraternal correction. The second is the apostolic authority granted here to bind and loose sin.
In the first instance, we have the opening sentence of the passage: “If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” Now, because of the translation, most of us take this to mean that someone has actually committed an offense against us individually, but many of the early Church Fathers read it differently. They interpret “sin against” as sinning in the presence of someone. So rather than having someone who sins against us, we are talking about someone who sins in front of us—someone who causes scandal. It has become very popular for us to talk of tolerance, which really these days means endorsement. If we don’t endorse someone else’s sinful behavior, we’re considered intolerant, and we can come under all kinds of abuse from the tyranny of toleration. But the Fathers and the Church have always believed in fraternal correction. We get our first instance of it with St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, correcting St. Peter, of all people. So we should not fear to provide fraternal correction when we can do so charitably and to good effect. Giving fraternal correction when it is likely to do damage doesn’t help, so we must always do so judiciously.
The second point has to do with the power of binding and loosing. In Matthew 16: 17–18, Jesus grants Peter the keys to the gates of the Kingdom and the authority to bind and loose. In our reading tonight, he expands that authority to all of the Twelve. Peter holds the keys, but the Twelve have the power to bind and loose.
What is this power, and how does it relate to us now? This question is debated among non-Catholics, who would like to think that somehow all Christians have this authority. But this is because they again are interpreting the passage solely on the English translation they are given, without considering the context. We have to go back to Jesus’ time to understand it properly. And in that time, priests in the temple and rabbis in the synagogue had the power to bind and loose—to include or exclude people from membership in the community. This power did not devolve to just anyone but to those in whom authority was vested. So it makes perfect sense for Jesus to invest His priests with the same authority.
Because of this decree in today’s gospel, we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation—or the Sacrament of Penance, or just simply Confession. These passages are the scriptural foundation for this sacrament.
That’s your sacramental theology lesson for this evening, but I want to take this a bit further and talk about why this sacrament is so important.
We human beings have an extraordinary ability to fool ourselves, to plaster over our errors, to minimize our responsibility, and to ignore the negative impact of our actions, if we never have to confront our failures. This problem is multiplied when it accompanies a cultural mindset that downplays or ignores the reality of sin. We forget that sin wounds us all—not just me when I commit sin; not just you when you are on the receiving end of my sin. Sin by its very nature wounds the body of Christ and wounds society.
So if I commit sin and am able to remain blissfully unaware, I have that festering wound on my soul. Those whom I offend are walking wounded in our world. And our wounds fester and kill the soul. We need to be healed. We need to be reconnected to the source of life. We need to be reconciled, and the first step of reconciliation is to recognize that we’re wounded.
Christ knew what he was about when He gave us sacraments—these visible signs He instituted to affect invisible grace. He knew that we had to be taught to recognize our wounds. Heck, he went so far to be wounded for our sins in the hope that we would see them and open our eyes. So he gave us visible, sensible means for our sacraments. In the sacrament of reconciliation, part of the sensible means is our own voice, our own words, acknowledging our sins. We are no longer carrying them around inside as a hidden festering mass, but pulling that out between ourselves and our confessor. We’re looking at sin in its ugliness and saying, “That’s it right there. That was what I did.” We are owning our wounds.
And then we get to hear some of the most beautiful words in the sacramental language of our faith:
God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins.
There are times when I want to weep at the beauty of those words: “May God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you.”
My job as a deacon is to encourage you to take the gospel out. Don’t be afraid to mention how wonderful this sacrament is, and what a blessing it is. So many people need to hear that message, and it’s your job as Catholics to spread the word. Take the message out to your friends. Tell them that this sacrament is not about shame but about healing. Glorify the Lord with your life in this one simple way.