…the sins of any…
Week 16, Day 4
John 20. 22-23
“When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
One of the curious efficiencies of human language (at least the couple I know a little bit about) is their capacity for expressing ideas without using words. For example, if I say to a group of people “Everyone is welcome here” and then point to one person and say “You, too”, you will hear me saying to that individual, “You (are welcome here) too”. That middle phrase “are welcome here” is implied and heard without being spoken. This saves words and works well—when we get the speaker’s meaning right.
But sometimes we get it wrong.
The New Testament scholar Sandra Schneiders, in a paper titled “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sins in the 4th Gospel”(1), believes this verse from John 20:23 is one of the places where we have gotten it wrong. For many, many years english translators have inserted into this verse a phrase they believe is implied and needed to make the meaning clear. Schneiders, and others who agree with her, think they have only obscured the meaning.
Here’s the common English translation: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
Two things to note here, according to Schneiders. First, the word translated “retain” has a range of meanings that includes “retain” but also includes meanings such as “to hold”, “to hold fast”, and “to embrace”.
And second, the phrase “the sins of any” in the sentence “if you retain the sins of any” is not in the original text. Most translators believe this phrase is implied by the text and necessary for making its meaning clear. So they insert it, even though John did not.
But what if it wasn’t implied? What if we leave that phrase out (as John did) and read the verse through the lens of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”? How does the meaning change?
Schneiders offers this more literal translation that sounds a bit awkward to our ears but makes perfect sense after a reading or two: “Of whomever you forgive the sins, they (the sins) are forgiven to them; whomever you hold fast (or embrace), they are held fast.” In the first phrase, she says, it is the sins that are forgiven. In the second phrase, it is the persons, not the sins, who are embraced or held fast.
Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples and sends them out to be his agents of forgiveness. It is hardly conceivable, Schneiders says, that this Jesus—sent to take away the sins of the world would, in the next sentence, commission his disciples to perpetuate that sin by refusing forgiveness to anybody.
What makes more sense, and is in keeping with the story John tells in the rest of his gospel, is this: Jesus commissions his disciples, by the power of the Spirit, to embrace and love the world—to hold it fast; and in that embrace they become channels of the unbounded Divine forgiveness demonstrated in his Good Friday death and validated by his Easter resurrection.
That’s what John is saying. The good news, you see, is abundant in this story.
Now re-read the account of Thomas below and imagine how, and by whom, he was being embraced during that in between week before he saw Jesus with his own eyes and touched him with his own hands.
Prayer: Remind us often that your first word to the world is love, your last word to the world is kindness and all your words in between are suffused with the fragrance of forgiveness. Open all our senses to the fulness of your grace. Amen.
John 20. 19-29
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them