Jesus Gives St. Peter the Authority to Forgive Sins

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Fr. Jim homily

6 minute read


Is. 22:19-23; Ps. 138; Rom. 11:33-36; Mt. 16:13-20

This week, the Word of God speaks to us of authority. Now, authority is often one of those topics that seems to rub people the wrong way, at least in the modern age. There was a time when authority was revered, but these days, not so much. There was a time when children were taught to respect their elders, but these days, not so much. Or at least those who are taught it are few and far between. This is just one way in which authority has been whittled away today. How has authority broken down so much in our day compared to what it once was? I would argue that authority has been diminished because God has been diminished. The minute we take God out of the equation is the minute society begins to break down. Founding father and fourth president of the United States of America, James Madison, once said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He also said our Constitution requires “sufficient virtue among men for self-government.” So, being a Citizen in this great country requires that one be responsible for their own actions in such a way as not to infringe upon the rights of another. This is the foundation of the moral law, is it not? And when one realizes that there is an objective morality, such that it is always wrong to cause harm to another or damage their property, they are already participating in the moral order. And if that moral order can be objectively known, then is it not so great a leap for us to acknowledge that the moral order is something greater than individuals, namely, that it is of God.

God is the source of morality because God is the source of all justice. And our participation in the moral order is by way of acknowledging this truth and living our lives according to it. As Catholic Christians, we do as Jesus said and keep the commandments, we seek to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. By doing so, we become a moral people, a people for whom not just the Constitution was written to protect, but also a people who acknowledge before others that there is a God and His way is right and just.

Of course, along the way, we are bound to make mistakes. We are often beset by evil desires and inclinations; we face temptations every day. Sometimes we stumble and fall; sometimes we miss the mark. Yet, as the People of God, we know that we are called to holiness, we know we are called to rise above our sinfulness. But, how are we to rise above it? How do we defeat sin?

The good news about sin is that Christ has already overcome it. He did that once for all when he offered himself on the Cross. But, he also knew that since he was returning to the Father he would have to leave someone in charge here on earth. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is presented as a new Moses, not just as a replacement, but as the true giver of the Law. Over and over again during the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “you have heard it said…but, I say to you.” Jesus speaks with authority. He also makes his authority known whenever he forgives sins. For instance, when the disciples lowered the paralytic through the roof of Peter’s house and Jesus says, “Your sins are forgiven,” the Pharisees wonder, “Who but God can forgive sins?” Jesus then proves his Divinity by commanding the man to rise, pick up his mat, and walk. Matthew shows that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins because he is Divine.

If Jesus’ authority to forgive sins is rooted in his Divinity, then it is within his power to pass his authority on to someone else. That is exactly what we see happening in our Gospel today, as Jesus gives Simon the authority to bind and loose sins. Because Simon was given a share in Jesus’ authority, he was given a particular mission. Whenever someone is given a new mission in the Bible, they are often given a new name. We see this when Abram became Abraham, or when Jacob became Israel. Today, Simon becomes Peter, a name which means ‘building stone.’ Peter becomes the first of many living stones that make up the Church. We, too, are living stones within the great structure of the Church. And as stones within the Church, we have certain spiritual needs. Jesus knew that in order for people to receive certain spiritual gifts, he would have to give certain people the authority to be ministers of those graces. That is why he entrusted Peter and the Apostles with the sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of Reconciliation for the forgiveness of sins. Having received this ministry, the Apostles, and through them the bishops and priests, have been given a share in the authority of Christ to forgive sins.

Once again, we are met with authority, but is this not an occasion for joy? Just as Jesus left us the memorial of his Body and Blood in the Most Blessed Sacrament, so too has he left us an opportunity to unburden our sins. Jesus says to Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Jesus set it up this way so that people could experience the forgiveness of their sins with the same assurance as when Jesus walked the earth.

It is Christ who forgives sins, and he has chosen his priests to be the instruments through which his People receive forgiveness. And so, as we continue to reflect on the awesome gift Jesus has left us in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, let us also reflect on how this share in his own authority to forgive sins is not a limitation, but a path to freedom. Just as we may freely choose to commit sin, so too may we freely choose to walk into the confessional and be forgiven. May the Eucharist we share today be a sign of the awesome mercy of God, and may it strengthen our faith, as we confess with Peter who said to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

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