Then the scribes and Pharisees began to ask themselves,
“Who is this who speaks blasphemies?
Who but God alone can forgive sins?”
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them in reply,
“What are you thinking in your hearts?
Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’
or to say, ‘Rise and walk’?
But that you may know
that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—
he said to the one who was paralyzed,
“I say to you, rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.”
Let me tell you a true story. One day I was standing near the confessionals at St. Francis right around the time the priests take a midmorning break from hearing confessions. As the last priest left and walked upstairs, a man next to me, who had been waiting in line for confession, turned to me to express his frustration: “Why is he leaving? They’re supposed to be here all the time! What am I supposed to do now?” I told him that there is a scheduled break in the mornings and he could come back in a few hours, or the next morning. He said, “No, I don’t want to come back…I’ll just tell you my sins now. It doesn’t matter if I confess them to a priest or not.”
I became very alarmed and quickly implored him not to tell me his sins, assuring him that I have no authority to forgive them. But before I could even begin to plug my ears or look around for a hidden camera (seriously, was this some kind of trick?), he began to blurt out his sin—something serious (though not illegal) and habitual. He looked at me as if imploring me to give him permission to continue in this sin—he seemed to think it impossible to stop, but he still had a nagging guilt that was bringing him to this confessional in the first place. He said he’d come to confession about it before, but the priest wouldn’t give him absolution because he’d said he had no intention to stop—he felt guilty, but he was still unrepentant. He was trying to come up with a list of excuses to justify his sin. On some level he knew that true repentance would mean changing his whole approach to life, and he either wasn’t willing to sacrifice that much or didn’t think it would be possible, even with God’s help.
I stood there bewildered, unsure of what to say or do to extract myself from the situation. He asked me if I thought what he was doing was sinful. I took a deep breath and said, “Yes, that is a sin, and you can receive forgiveness in confession. I cannot absolve you from your sins. But God wants to forgive all your sins, and His mercy is infinite. Come back here tomorrow for confession, and in the meantime, pray to the Divine Mercy. If you can’t feel repentant, pray to start feeling repentant. Pray for understanding.” Although he was still frustrated at the idea of coming back to confession, he brightened at the mention of Divine Mercy and said he had a Divine Mercy image at his desk at work. I parted ways with him and prayed a novena that he would come to repentance.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus establishes that He has the power to forgive sins. The Pharisees recoil at this, declaring it blasphemy—for indeed, it would be blasphemy if any one of us claimed that we had the power to forgive sins on our own. Even priests only claim that authority through the power of Jesus, not on their own merit. We are but helpless sinners, unable to pull ourselves out of the pit of sin, let alone anyone else. But Jesus is no ordinary man. Through Him, and only through Him, we can find forgiveness and rebirth. Sometimes we avoid turning to Him for forgiveness, distracted by the lie that we can’t face Him in our sin, or maybe we avoid coming to Him because we are comfortable and complacent in our sin and aren’t ready to change. But He is the only path to freedom.
Anyone can say that your sins are forgiven, or that they’re really not so bad, or that it doesn’t matter how you live your life. But only Jesus can give us true freedom from our sins; only He can erase them with His love; only He can raise us up from our paralyzed state and make us walk again. This Advent, come to Him in confession, and don’t hold anything back. Answer the twinge of your conscience and bring your sins before Him. Don’t allow complacency to keep you from His healing power.
Image: Vodnik, Confession: Bernardine Cathedral in Lviv / PD-US