Recently, I was talking to some former parishioners whose son is just a few years away from getting a driver’s license. Someone in the group made the observation that the dad’s car would soon become the son’s car. That was followed immediately by some joking conversation about the young son’s opinions about his dad’s use, and care of, the car that would eventually pass to the son.
A participant in the conversation suggested that the son might want the dad to keep the car cleaner, take corners more cautiously and drive more slowly. The son responded immediately, “No, he needs to drive faster!”
Everyone laughed because the comment was typical of an adolescent, and because of the cognitive dissonance of a situation in which a parent has to get permission from a child. Today’s Gospel reading contains a similar, but much more serious, example of permission either granted or withheld.
In the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus in John’s Gospel, he said to the Eleven, “Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.” (John 20:23) Most Catholics today probably tend to understand this as a reference to the type of forgiveness granted in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but to do so is to misunderstand Jesus’ statement.
During Jesus’ lifetime the terminology of “forgiving” or “retaining” was used commonly by Rabbis; it was a description of a legal ruling that either required a person to fulfill a particular aspect of the Law of Moses or gave the person permission to forgo fulfilling some aspect of the Law. For example, earlier in John’s Gospel, Jesus gave permission to a man to carry a sleeping pallet on the Sabbath. (John 5:8) Under normal circumstances, carrying a sleeping pallet on the Sabbath would have been considered work, and therefore, prohibited by the Law. (John 5:10) In this case, Jesus “forgave” the sin or, in other words, gave the permission for an exception to the rule.
This power of “binding or loosing” was translated into Christian practice as the authority to grant or deny entrance into Baptism. Immediately after commissioning them as his emissaries, Jesus gave the Eleven the authority to determine who was qualified to receive Baptism (and therefore, membership in the Church), and who was not.
Today, most people in the United States find it odious to think that they need someone else’s permission before taking a particular action. Our cultural value of egalitarianism has morphed into a sense of entitlement that gives us presumptive permission to do as we please. As we cannot help but be influenced by the secular culture in which we live, most Catholics consider Baptism, and the other Sacraments, to be entitlements. This assumption has unforeseen, and self-destructive, consequences.
When God’s gifts of Grace given through the Sacraments are seen as entitlements, God is reduced to being nothing more than a provider of consumer goods and services. Worse, this attitude raises individuals to the level of deserving divine favor; in essence, the individual substitutes self in the place of God. The substitution of the temporal where the eternal belongs creates an unavoidable and inescapable sense of dissatisfaction. Most of us are probably very reluctant to admit it, but our sense of entitlement leads ineluctably to our chronic unhappiness.
On the other hand, to approach the Sacraments with gratitude for such great gifts, we allow God to be God and we avoid the self-imposed trap of dissatisfaction. Jesus gave a select few of his disciples the authority to grant or deny admittance to Baptism. The reason for this was obvious. Even the first Christian communities, which were composed of people who knew Jesus during his lifetime, struggled with the presence of those whose faith was short-lived. In fact, it can be said that the various texts comprising the Christian Scriptures, perhaps with the sole exception of the Letter to the Romans, were written exclusively in response to serious problems that occurred in church communities.
Some people are able to assume the responsibilities of Baptism, and others are not; some need on-going formation and conversion before they can get to a place of readiness. For those of us who are already baptized, the warning remains valid. Having been called to the saving waters of Baptism, we must struggle every day to remain worthy of so great a calling. This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote the passage of the Letter to the Romans that is our second reading today. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. Those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Romans 8: 8.14)
On this feast of Pentecost we pray that we may remain faithful to our Baptismal vows, and that we may never take for granted God’s favor poured out in the Spirit. We, the baptized, have been permitted entrance into a life filled with God’s presence. Can we give ourselves permission to be grateful?