Whose sins you shall retain

Fr Patrick J. Flanagan
(The Swag, Autumn 2013). Reprinted with permission.

Many years ago, I refused absolution to a penitent. I have repented that action, the arrogance of it, many times since. The obvious scriptural warrant for this was in John 20:23, though the possibility of having to defer the speaking God’s forgiveness doesn’t really depend on that.

For many years I have wondered why Jesus would have said, ‘For those whose sins you retain, they are retained (by God).’ There is a harshness about it which doesn’t seem like Jesus; and it risks his ministers basking in the very kind of power that he so often warned his apostles against. So I was very pleased to discover earlier this year that John 20:23 does not say, ‘whose sins you shall retain, they are retained. The Greek text speaks about forgiving sins; but Barbara Reid OP, in a reflection that she wrote on the Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter (Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year B, Liturgical Press Page 39), pointed out that the second phrase doesn’t mention sins at all. That being the case, the Greek word krateo, which is translated as retained might be a mis-translated.

The two statements Jesus makes are obviously parallel statements. Starting sometime in the fourth century, it began to be presumed that the parallels were opposites, that is antithetical parallels. Those who came to this opinion did so by parallelling John 20:23 with the phrases in Matthew 16 & 18 about binding and loosing. In order for that interpretation to hold, they had to presume that, although hamartias – sins was not in the second line of the parallel texts, it was implied. Not so!

I have on my computer an excellent Scripture program called Logos. I began to research the meaning of krateo using the Greek Lexicons that are part of Logos. For the most part, they simply presumed that the accusative hamartias is implied; and translate krateo in John 20:23 accordingly. Even Kittlel’s 10 volume Theological Dictionary of the New Testament accepted the understanding that had held sway for so many centuries. I am reminded of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s remark once that often scripture scholars repeat the wisdom of those who preceded without checking. Which is okay if the original scholar is right. He compared it to a long camel train crossing the desert. It can look very impressive until you discover that the animal leading this impressive trail is a donkey.

However, the Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (3 vol.) points out that if krateo is found with the ** accusative case, then it implies the use of force; but if it is with the objective genitive case, then it is a gentle action. In John 20:23, krateo is with the objective genitive.

I emailed Barbara Reid about this; and she referred me to a chapter in Life in Abundance, Studies of John’s Gospel in Tribute to Raymond E Brown. The author of Chapter 7, Sandra M Schneiders I.H.M. goes into the meaning of John 20:23 thoroughly. There is a parallelism, but it is not antithetical; The parallels are progressive: ‘Whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven by God, and will remain forgiven; those you hold, (embrace even) will be held, embraced by God, and they will continue to be held, embraced by God.’

We connect John 20:23 with the Sacrament of Penance. We should not, however, limit its meaning to the Sacrament. The group gathered in the upper room on Easter Sunday night were the disciples. In the fourth Gospel, the disciples are a bigger group than the twelve.

** I don’t wish to give the impression that I have any mastery of Biblical Greek. I have tried for years to become a fluent reader of Greek, but with little success. It may just be a function of age.  I can’t master things like these prepositions: meta with the accusative case means after; but with the genitive it means with. Para with the accusative means alongside of (like paramedics); with the genitive it means from; and with the dative case it means beside, in the presence of.  Hupo with the accusative means under, below; but with the genitive it means by. When it gets to recognising the tense of Greek verbs, I have an inkling of what early Alzheimer’s feels like. There are a number of Scripture programs for Computers that do some of this thinking for you.