It’s sometimes called the Office of the Keys, that bit where Jesus says “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” We’ve had lots of theological fun and some great yelling sessions about what exactly this means.
More than one Christian has felt that this means if everyone else is ready to forgive, if even God is prepared to forgive, but YOU aren’t ready, then the unforgiven person goes straight to hell because of YOUR unforgiveness. (Interestingly, and strictly for history nerds, this is a ‘hot potato’ version of the Liberum Veto that ended up scuttling the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and led to the partitions of Poland). In this context, people ‘forgive’ lest their own unwillingness condemn others. Which causes the ‘stampede to forgiveness’ after tragedies.
The thing is, that we’ve allowed the traditional interpretation overshadow the actual Greek words and the nuances we’ve missed while having flaming rows about who has the duty and even right to forgive.
You see, what Jesus says is “If one should afiemi the sins [of someone], they have been afiemi to them. If one should krateo [the sins, they have been] krateo [to them.]”
The parallelism is pretty clear so John didn’t record all the fluffy words we would use to make a precise translation. But its clear just the same. “If a person [subjunctive verb] the sins [these are implied the sins of another but the sinner’s identity is not clearly stated] they have been [perfect verb].
Should someone do A [the subjunctive “should” verb], then it has been accomplished [to them]. The key question to face then is what exactly these two verbs mean.
Afiemi is the verb for “forgive, let go of, drop, cease to hold on to.”
Krateo is a bit more fun because it is “to grasp, take possession.” It’s the root of the -crat in Aristo-crat, Demo-crat, and Pluto-crat
So, should one let go of sin, the sins are “let go of.” A better way to say this is “dropped.” Should one drop the sin of another, it has already been dropped. This works particularly well if one thinks of sin as an injury for which one gets a claim ticket against the person who injured one. The actual violation, the missing of the mark (the meaning of the Hebrew word for ‘sin’) by the other person, gives one a claim against them.
What we hold onto then is something like a claim ticket against the other person. They did an injury, they therefore owe us to fix what they’ve broken. BUT and this is the most common reality, even though “they owe us,” they may not recognize the claim, their fix may be no fix at all, or perhaps they delayed so long in ‘making it up to us’ that they’ve died.
However it happens, we have a claim against them, a claim ticket if you will, and it is going unredeemed. What we can do then is drop the ticket, i.e. forgive the other person. And that’s what happens in this promise of Jesus. Should we drop our claim against another person, the claim has already been dropped.
So what happens if we do the other thing, if we krateo instead of afiemi? Well, if we don’t drop it, we hold on to it. In fact, one could say that since krateo carries the sense of “power” and “possession,” we could say, without doing too much damage to the text, that the opposite of dropping our claim is clinging to it. We take power over it and clutch it in our fist. We own it and make it our possession.
And if we take this claim ticket against the universe and clutch it in our fist, it has not only not been dropped, it has been reinforced by our claiming it, our claiming power over (and sometimes through) it. In a sense then it has already been clutched close.
Which brings us at last to the conclusion of the tale. When we are injured by the universe or others, we get a claim against them, a claim to which they can through effort and personal growth make amends. Their amends may or may not redeem our claim. They may even, through ineptitude and ongoing cluelessness, reinforce the injury done us thus making another claim for us to address.
But if we leave ‘fixing this’ in the hands of other people, our personal and spiritual life is now held hostage to someone else’s capacity to fix us. They may be truly amazing people, able to fix all that is wrong within us by a simple word, but if they are truly that good they probably wouldn’t have incurred the claim in the first place. More likely, they are frail contradictory and foolish people trying to do well for and with us but not too sure about how to be their best or fix their own life themselves. Putting our fixing in someone else’s hands takes the pressure off us but the odds are not in our favor.
This leaves us with the challenge of fixing ourselves and dealing with this pile of unresolved claim tickets ourselves. Note that we are not all alone in this, we have allies and friends, this is not on us alone with our reed thin strength alone. But we are going to have to do something with this pile of tickets.
Clutching them close, holding onto them for dear life, is a mug’s game. Waiting for someone else to resolve them leaves us a hostage to fortune and the random factors of the universe. Which more or less leaves us stuck with (ugh) dropping it. It leaves us with the hard task of letting go of all those tickets.
Make no mistake, letting go is hard, not least because part of letting go (as we’ve been taught it in society) includes saying that our entirely legitimate claims won’t be met or fixed or resolved. When I was younger, this was easier to do because I had been taught that I didn’t actually matter so injury to me was normal and expected. Part of the walk to health has been accepting that I do matter and the injuries done to me, the sins against me, were and are WRONG. We have value and the shortcut to forgiveness of pretending that “it doesn’t matter/it ain’t no thing” is itself a second injury.
So we have a pile of valid claims tickets, we have been legitimately hurt and have a right to be angry. How do we let go, afiemi, drop, forgive these injuries without discounting ourselves or simply playing ‘let’s pretend” until “everything is OK?”
Lots of work.
Some successes, some failures, and the occasional successful failure that teaches us a better way to succeed.
It takes time, effort, energy, and persistence. That’s why they’re called spiritual practices not spiritual achievements.
And to be completely honest, it takes other people. Life is too hard to get through on our own. And so, ironically, we need the very people who are going to hurt us in order to learn how to take our huge pile of claim tickets and toss them into the incinerator of grace.
We need the people who are also struggling with their pile of tickets to help us get to the point where we can learn to both extend and receive grace. We need each other’s strength in order to let go of, afiemi, the tickets we’ve inherited from the abrasiveness of life and the wounds of others who have not yet learned how to drop their own tickets against the world. Even more, it takes the strength of that which is larger than we are, the Everlasting Mercy that, in the face of human sin, shows Divine Mercy and Holy Grace.
Jesus is right, if we should drop the claim ticket, it has already been dropped. If on the other hand, we cling to it and make it the center of our power in life, if we krateo that ticket, we cling to the very thing that clings to us like a waterlogged jacket when we’re swimming for our life.