Hidden in Plain Sight: the Key to Following the Way of Jesus
Dear People of St. Andrew’s:
I have had many comments and much feedback following Sunday’s sermon. I am taking advantage of our Wednesday NewsNote to spell out one of the components of the sermon—the authority of binding and loosing found in Matthew 16:19 and again in Matthew 18:18-19. As a result, this week’s note is more of an essay than a chatsy! –Jen+
Last Sunday our Gospel was from Matthew 16. In that passage Jesus says,
“… I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
The authority that Jesus gives Peter—and thus the church—to “bind” (δέω dēo) and “loose” (λύω lūo) is the key that is hidden in plain sight, the key to the mandate to follow Jesus. It is the key to actively and conscientiously engage, assess, and then apply holy scripture in general, and Jesus’ actions and words in particular, so that they are guidelines for Christian life in the 21st century.*
“Binding” and “loosing” are terms used by rabbis to assess the laws of righteous living in the context of the here and now. For instance, we all know that one of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not steal.” But what do you do if you find a dove in the street? Who owns it? Should the finder look for the rightful owner? Or is the rule “finders, keepers”? When asked these questions, the rabbis decreed that if the bird is found within 50 cubits of a dovecote, the dove belongs to the owner of the dovecote. The finder is bound to the law that you must not steal. However, if the dove is found beyond 50 cubits from the dovecote, the person who found the dove may keep it—they are loosed from the obligation to find the owner and may keep the dove.
“Binding” and “loosing” is thus the authority and the responsibility of the church to decide what the rules are for, to make a determination as to how a particular situation reflects the intended outcome of the rules, and to adjudicate accordingly.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus shows us the tension of binding and loosing: Jesus heals on a Sabbath, Jesus encourages his hungry disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, Jesus touches lepers. These actions are against the letter of the law. But when he is challenged, whenever someone says that he should be ashamed of breaking the rules, Jesus spells out the purpose and intention of the law and shows that his actions fulfill that purpose and intention. He is “loosed” from the obligation to not work on the Sabbath by the dire predicament of a paralytic, his famished disciples are loosed from the law against working on the Sabbath; Jesus is “loosed” from the obligation to remain separate from unclean lepers by his ability to heal them and his compassion for their plight.
Throughout the Bible, we are told that at the core of all laws are the commands to love God and to love neighbor. Throughout the Bible, we are told to live holy lives, to be holy because God is holy. Throughout the Bible, we are shown that God’s ideal is that we flourish in our relationship with each other and the world, and that we honor God’s creation by doing so. In Word made flesh, in God coming among us and living with us, in Jesus, we see how it is done. And in Matthew 16, and again in Matthew 18, Jesus gives this responsibility of actively living the Way of Love to the church—to us.
This is hard work, and it is challenging work. It means that we cannot just point to words on a page and blindly follow those words without any consideration or thought; it means that we cannot simply look around at the customs of the day and accommodate them in order to be “up to date.” If we are following in Jesus’ footsteps, we will do what he did: we will consider scripture and commandments in the context of the core rules of loving God and loving neighbor. If we are following in the footsteps of Jesus, we will challenge the aspects of the status quo that are hurtful to outsiders and powerless, aspects that are typically advantageous to insiders. The church is called to a higher standard than just following “the way things are,” either in society, and even in the Bible. Through the centuries, the church has done this. In our own time, the church continues to do this.
The early controversies may seem a little silly now. We’ve moved way beyond whether becoming Jewish was binding for new converts to the Way of Jesus (the big controversy in the first century of the church) or whether to loose the prohibition against images from the Second Commandment (the shattering controversy in the 700s and 800s). In their time, these controversies caused as much anger, schism, and deep thought and conversation as any of our modern controversies.
In the 18th and 19th century the church wrestled with the question of whether it was biblically permissible to own other human beings. Slavery is taken for granted in the Bible. If slavery is not criticized in the Bible, shouldn’t we be able to take slavery for granted? Isn’t it okay? No, it is not. You cannot take slavery for granted if you apply the core teaching Jesus’ reaching out to those who suffer; you cannot take slavery for granted if you take seriously that all humans are made in God’s image; you cannot take slavery for granted if you hold to the principle that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Now we look back in shame to see that the Bible was used to justify the practice of slavery—and we can also look in pride to see that the church loosed that “right” to own another human. The church changed, binding us all to regard neighbor as self. The religious zeal of abolitionists and their unwillingness to give up the fight in the face of massive disapproval, criticism, and even danger to themselves shows the power of Jesus’ command, and of Jesus’ example.
Divorce is still a contested act, with some denominations condemning the practice, others allowing it. Jesus gave his reasons for condemning divorce: in his day, divorce left women helpless and destitute, and only the husband could initiate divorce. By Jesus’ day, some women were divorced for essentially no reason at all for the convenience of the husband. It was cruel to the woman who could be summarily divorced because she would likely find herself without any means of support. The Episcopal Church has loosed the rule against divorce: women today are able to initiate divorce, and women today have many ways to support themselves and their family if they do divorce.
Ordaining women is another example of the church binding and loosing. There are passages in the Bible that say that women should be silent in church; there are passages—including in the Gospels—where women clearly are leaders and far from silent. In our own time, we have loosed the prohibition against ordaining women because we can see that women have the vocation, the skills, the training, and the capacity to lead the church.
On September 24th (or October 1, if we postpone the Pond Eucharist because of rain), we will have an Adult Forum after Sunday service to study the particulars of the Episcopal Church’s careful, prayerful, and important decision to ordain LGBTQ+ persons, and to create and bless a liturgy of marriage for any two adults who have committed themselves to a lifelong relationship. I hardly need tell you that our church’s decision to be open and affirming has been bitter and divisive, and that our church’s decision continues to be controversial and to garner criticism. But perhaps now that we are at the end of this essay I also hardly need tell you that the decision was made prayerfully, biblically, and with the authority given the church—the authority of binding and loosing that Jesus gave Peter and the church. In the 20th and 21st century we have seen the emergence of new awareness of the construction of human sexuality, and we honor the deep desire of people—whether they are heterosexual or not—who wish to serve God and neighbor, and who wish to be in lifelong, committed, loving relationships.
I hope you will bring your thoughts, your questions, your concerns, and your Bibles with you for that Adult Forum. May God bless you as you navigate this rich and challenging life. We follow the Way of Love that Jesus showed us and commanded us to follow—Jesus who is Messiah, Son of the Living God, and human being from the ancient world and a land and culture so very different from our own—a Way of Love that continues to challenge us so that we may truly love God, and truly love our neighbor.
May the peace of the Lord be always with you,
* This news note message is based on the scholarship of Mark Allan Power. See Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and Loosing: Asserting the Moral Authority of Scripture in Light of a Matthean Paradigm,” Ex Auditu 19 (2003), 81-96.