Catholics are often questioned about confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  I’ve heard many questions and objections over the years, such as:

“Where is that in the Bible?”

“Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins!”

“A priest is only a man and cannot forgive sins.”

“What right does a priest have to tell me what I should offer for the forgiveness of my sins?”

Thanks to EWTN and Frances Hogan, host of “Miracles From Mark”, I now have very concrete answers to these objections and I’m just over the moon about it.

To the first question, I can now answer that it is in Mark 1:40-43.  This is the story of Jesus’ healing of the leper.  It has been long understood that the surface of the story, the physical healing of the leper, is only a small part of the point of this story.  More to the point is who the leper represents and what Jesus does for him.

In the time of the Old Testament, every leper had to be seperated from the rest of the community in order to prevent the spread of the disease.  This was, of course, a part of the law.  Also a part of the law was the edict that any leper claiming to have been healed had to present himself to the priests of the Temple for a physical examination to ensure that he had indeed been healed, and make the offering proscribed by Moses for such a healing.

Back to the healing of the leper, the law appears to be broken several times over.  First, the leper did not go about shouting “Unclean, unclean!” and ringing a bell as the Law of Moses intructs.  Then, the leper throws himself at Jesus’ feet, close enough to touch him.  Next, the leper’s hubris continues when he dares to speak to Jesus.  He tells Jesus that if He wants to, Jesus can cleanse him.

And what does Jesus do?  He reaches out, touches his head, and says “I will.  Be made clean.”

Imagine what the people who were with Jesus, who were following Him because of His miracles, thought.  This man, who they thought was a holy man of God, broke the law!  He touched a leper!  And then, the leper was healed?  The leper was rewarded for breaking the law?

I can easily understand their confusion.  In Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus makes it clear that the law is not being abolished, but fulfilled.  Not done away with, but brought to its full meaning and purpose.  If that is true, then how can Jesus countenance the breaking of all of these laws?

The truth is, the law was meant for man, not man for the Law (Matthew 12:1-13 illustrates this).  The leper, by the grace of God, knew that Jesus was his only chance to be healed.  So then, let’s look at who the leper represents, and the deeper meaning of the story.

The leper is us: all humanity, sinful and seperated from God since the Fall.  We have no choice but to throw ourselves upon God’s mercy and love and hope for the best.  God, through Jesus Christ, offers forgiveness to all of us.  This story of the healing of the leper makes it clear that Jesus is the one who does the healing.  Jesus is the one who can forgive sins.  And, being the High Priest of God, the Son of God Himself, He had every right to send the leper home to his family.

Jesus didn’t do that, though.  He instructed the leper to go to the high priest, allow him to perform the required physical examination, and to offer the things Moses commanded for his cleansing.  He ordered the leper to follow the Law.

Why?  Because in this way the Law is fulfilled.  The leper, the sinful human, is forgiven by God, but he must still go to the priest.  He must still be examined (confess his sins).  He must still offer what Moses commanded (perform his Penance).  Then he is re-admitted to society (able to receive the Eucharist and exist in a state of Grace).

In case I haven’t been clear, here are my answers to the questions and objections I listed in the beginning.

“Where is that in the Bible?”  Mark 1:40-43

“Jesus is the only one who can forgive sins!”  Yes, that’s true.

“A priest is only a man and cannot forgive sins.”  A priest is only a man, but by the grace and will of God he stands in the Person of Christ, and thereby he can forgive sins.

“What right does a priest have to tell me what I should offer for the forgiveness of my sins?”  Jesus himself ordered the leper to give what Moses, a man and a priest, had commanded.