In the passion account according to Saint Matthew there is a detail not recorded elsewhere. Judas tries to the return the money to the chief priests. The priests are set apart by God to intercede for the people. Their job is to stand between the wrath of God and the sins of the people. Moses does it quite literally. Aaron and his sons are set apart to do this in perpetuity until the true sacrifice arrives. And the priests of Jesus day are supposed to do it as well.
But they do not. In response to Judas confession “I have sinned”, they do not respond with “Your sin is taken away, your guilt atoned for.” They do not respond with “Me absolve te…” or any similar formula. They leave Judas in his sin. “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” They are no longer priests. They may wear the garb and have the nameplate on the door. But a priest who will not absolve is no priest. In the Large Catechism we confess, “Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin through the Word and signs, to comfort and encourage our consciences as long as we live here.”
Pastors are not given to just summarize the Word of God, and proclaim in the abstract that sins in general are forgiven. They are to stand in the stead of Christ, and actually give forgiveness. Arrogant, I know. And if there were not the explicit command of Christ to do just this thing, we would be the most arrogant and blasphemous of men to do so.
But having been commanded by Christ to loose and bind sins, we are actually arrogant and blasphemous if we do not do this thing. And a priest or pastor who refuses to do so to any penitent is no longer serving as a priest and pastor in the stead of Christ. They are now serving in the stead of another biblical example. It doesn’t matter the fine legal reasoning they may use. We see the same sort of hair-splitting in Scripture. The money – recently come from the treasury – can not be returned there because now it is blood money. So they buy a potters field with it.
In this week when repentance reaches its most acute level of the entire year, it would be well for our church to remember this, and the make sure we have no places, no land or buildings, where forgiveness is not offered, no pastors who are forbidden to absolve. Because if we do, we no longer function as church, but as high priests of another god, serving that god in our potters fields.