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Jesus Christ Has the Power to Forgive Sins

General Audience — October 7, 1987

—    Jesus' claim aroused opposition and scandal

Linked to the divine power of judgment about which we spoke in the previous reflection, Jesus Christ claimed the power of forgiving sins. The evangelists inform us of that, especially John. We have seen that the divine power of judging each and every person—underlined especially in the apocalyptic description of the last judgment—is profoundly connected with the divine will to save humanity in Christ and through Christ. The first step in putting the plan of salvation into effect is the remission of sins.

It may be said that the revealed truth of the power of judgment has its continuation in all that the Gospel says about the power to forgive sins. This power belongs to God alone. If Jesus Christ—the Son of Man—has that power, it means that he is God, according to what he himself said, "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30). From the beginning of his messianic mission, Jesus not only proclaimed the necessity of conversion ("Be converted and believe the Gospel," Mk 1:15) and taught that the Father is ready to pardon repentant sinners, but he himself forgave sins.

The power which Jesus professed to possess by claiming it for his personal self without any hesitation is seen with greater clarity precisely in such moments. For example, he stated that, "The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" (Mk 2:10). He said it to the scribes who were present at Capernaum when a paralyzed man was brought to him to be healed. The evangelist Mark tells us that those who accompanied the paralytic had gone so far as to open the roof and let down before Jesus the pallet on which the sick man lay. On seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralyzed man, "My son, your sins are forgiven" (Mk 2:5). Some of the scribes were sitting there asking themselves, "Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins except God alone?" (2:7). Jesus was immediately aware of their reasoning, though they kept it to themselves, and he said to them, "Why do you harbor these thoughts? Which is easier to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk?' But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, (he said to the paralytic), 'I command you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.' The people who saw the miracle were amazed, and they praised God saying, 'We never saw anything like this'" (2:8-12).

The amazement aroused by that extraordinary cure is understandable, as well as the feeling of fear or awe. According to Matthew, fear seized the crowd in the presence of the manifestation of that power of healing granted by God to men (cf. Mt 9:8) or, as Luke put it, on account of the "extraordinary things" seen that day (5:26). But for those who reflect on what took place, the miraculous cure is seen as the confirmation of the truth proclaimed by Jesus and perceived and opposed by the scribes, "The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins."

1.  Jesus' claim aroused opposition and scandal

Jesus' precise statement about his power to forgive sins on earth should also be noted. He already exercised this power during his historical life, while he moved about as Son of Man in the towns and roads of Palestine, and not merely at the eschatological judgment, after the glorification of his humanity. Already on earth Jesus is "God with us," the God-Man who forgives sins. It is likewise to be noted that in all cases in which Jesus spoke of forgiveness of sins, those present manifested opposition and were scandalized. This was so in the case of the woman who was a sinner, who went to the Master while he was seated at table in the Pharisee's house. Jesus said to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven" (Lk 7:48). The reaction of the others seated at table was significant. They began to say among themselves, "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" (Lk 7:49).

Also in the case of the woman caught in adultery and brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees in order to force him to give judgment on the basis of the Mosaic law, we find some significant details recorded by the evangelist John. Jesus' first reply to the woman's accusers, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her," gives us a perception of his realistic understanding of the human condition, beginning with that of his questioners who began to drift away one by one. We note also Jesus' profound humanity in his treatment of the unfortunate woman, of whose sins he certainly disapproved, for he said to her, "Go and do not sin again." But he did not crush her under the weight of a condemnation without appeal.

In Jesus' words we can discern the reaffirmation of this power to forgive sins and therefore of the transcendency of his divine identity. When he asked the woman, "Has no one condemned you?" she replied, "No one, Lord." He declared, "Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again" (8:10 f.). Those words, "neither do I" vibrate with the power of the judgment and forgiveness which the Word has in common with the Father and which he exercises in his human Incarnation for the salvation of each one of us.

In this context of the whole mystery of salvation and of the forgiveness of sins, what matters most is that we love Jesus with our whole soul—he who comes to us as the eternal will of love and of forgiveness. Christ himself teaches us this when, seated at table with the Pharisees and seeing them surprised by the fact that he accepted the marks of veneration on the part of the woman who was a sinner, he recounted to them the parable of the two debtors. One owed the money-lender five hundred coins, the other fifty. Since neither was able to repay, the money-lender wrote off both debts. "Which of the two," Jesus asked, "was more grateful to him?" Simon replied, "He, I presume, to whom he remitted the larger sum." Jesus said to him, "You are right.... You see this woman?... Her many sins are forgiven because of her great love. But he who is forgiven little, loves little" (cf. Lk 7:42-47).

The complex psychology of the relationship between the creditor and the debtor, between the love which obtains pardon and the pardon which engenders new love, between the rigorous measure of giving and possessing and the generosity of the grateful heart which tends to give without measure, is condensed in these words of Jesus. They invite us to adopt the right attitude in the presence of the God-Man who exercises his divine power of forgiving sins for our salvation.

Since we are all in debt to God, Jesus included in the prayer taught to his disciples and passed on by them to all believers, that fundamental request to the Father, "Forgive us our debts" (Mt 6:12), which in Luke's version reads, "Forgive us our sins" (Lk 11:4). Once again he wished to teach us that only God can forgive sins (cf. Mk 2:7). At the same time, however, Jesus exercised this divine power in virtue of that other truth also taught by him, namely, that the Father has not only "given all judgment to the Son" (Jn 5:22), but has also conferred on him the power to forgive sins. Evidently it is not a case of a simple "ministry" entrusted to a mere man who carries it out by divine command. The significance of the words with which Jesus claimed the power to forgive sins—and in fact forgave them in so many cases narrated by the Gospels—is more forceful and more telling for the minds of Christ's hearers. They charged him with claiming to be God and accused him of blasphemy with such fury as to lead eventually to his death on the cross.

Jesus entrusted the ministry of forgiving sins to the apostles (and their successors) when he appeared to them after the resurrection, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven" (Jn 20:22 ff.). As Son of Man who is personally identified with the Son of God, Jesus forgave sins by his own power, communicated to him by the Father in the mystery of the trinitarian communion and of the hypostatic union. As Son of Man who in his human nature suffered and died for our salvation, Jesus expiated our sins and obtained for us their remission from God One and Three. As Son of Man who in his messianic mission must prolong his saving action until the end of time, Jesus conferred on the apostles the power to forgive sins to help mankind to live in harmony of faith and action with that eternal will of the Father "who is rich in mercy" (Eph 2:4).

Our entire hope of salvation rests on this infinite mercy of the Father, on the sacrifice of Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, who died for us, and on the work of the Holy Spirit who, through the ministry of the Church, continually carries out in the world the "forgiveness of sins" (cf. Encyclical Dominum et Vivificantem).