The Rev. Irina Dubinski

In our Gospel reading today there’s a mysterious phrase that might have caught your attention: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven”.

Matthew records two instances of Jesus saying this to Peter, once in a context of building the church (ch. 16), and here, in the context of maintaining it with forgiveness. What do you think it means, this “binding and loosing”? Well, as it turns out, these strange terms were quite commonly used at the time of Christ, by the Jewish religious leaders. Many of their writings survive to this day, and demonstrate a frequent use of the terms “binding and loosing”, to mean simply “forbidding and permitting” an activity in the congregation that is not explicitly addressed by the Torah.

The Torah is a written text that gives specific rules and examples from the history of the Jewish nation, which its subsequent generations used to extrapolate general life principles. Even though the word “Torah” has been translated into English as “law”, it first means “instruction”. According to the Jewish and Christian tradition, the Torah is comprised of the “five books of Moses” that he personally received and recorded (though the current scholarship presents a much more complex picture of Biblical authorship). In the Christian canon, these books appear at the beginning of what is called the Old Testament; and in the Jewish tradition, they open what is called the Tanakh. In addition to the written Torah, there was an oral section of Jewish instruction, which is called the Talmud.

Now, as we know, there’s a lot more to the Torah and Talmud than the 10 main rules that Moses had chiseled out on the surface of the stone tablets. “The Law” gives incredibly specific instructions for many life situations. For example, if you build a house with a flat roof, you must secure it with a railing. If a man’s fire got out of control and burned up his neighbor’s crop, he was responsible to replace what was burned. The situations described are specific; however, the universal principle of being responsible for our actions -- preventing hurt, and paying for our mistakes -- is not difficult to extrapolate. This is important because, obviously, no amount of detail provided by the written and oral Instruction could cover every possible life scenario. But, and here is “the rub”, such extrapolation and application requires interpretation. And interpretation requires wisdom, and raises the question of authority.

The Jewish authority rested with the rabbis - the teachers and scholars who examined the law and offered what was called a "yoke”; that is, a written collection of their applications of the Torah’s teachings. Several schools of rabbinical interpretation arose by the 1st century, most famously Hillel and Shammai. The rabbis had to make numerous decisions re. what to permit (i.e., “loose”), and what to forbid (i.e., “bind”) in individual cases. For example, the Sabbath day has always generated a lot of controversy, because the Torah never defined specific activities as “work”. So for instance, the rabbi decided that when it came to walking, more than one-half mile was considered a form of work, and so they “bound” anyone from walking further than that on the Sabbath.

Rabbi Jesus did just what his colleagues were doing: he took the law and applied it to daily practical issues of morality, and loosened/relaxed some rules, as well as tightening and extending others. There are many stories in which his rivals intend to trap him in intellectual arguments, but there are also examples of people coming to him in good faith to hear his interpretations of situations that genuinely puzzled them. In some ways, the entire Sermon on the Mount is an example of Jesus’ “binding and loosing”, using the formulaic language "You have heard it said…I say unto you". He binds anger, hate and revenge, as an extension of murder. But he also looses the rules for Sabbath-keeping in order to heal and help people.

So when Jesus spoke to Peter, the disciples, and us today, he used the language of 1st century rabbis, and charged us all with the same task: to make decisions about “binding and loosing” the Law written on our hearts. We must all make ethical judgments every day that circumscribe our private life and interactions with others. There are many grey zones, of course. For example, what is the meaning of the phrase, "your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?" Does it mean ensuring the health of our bodies, or turning them into objects of worship? And what does it mean in practical terms: avoiding smoking and getting enough sleep? What about extreme diets and Ironman races? Much more seriously, over the centuries, Christians have struggled with the application of “do not kill” to war, abortion and euthanasia, and with issues of gender and sexuality in determining the dignity of a person. Who can say how far the Bible applies in such situations? You? Me? The Church? Individual congregations?

The trouble is that our current translation of Jesus’ words to Peter is quite misleading. The phrase that most versions translate in the future tense, active voice (“whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven”) in the Greek text is, in fact, written in the passive voice. A better translation would be something like, “whatever you forbid on earth will have been already forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth must have been already permitted in heaven”. So it is not like we decide what to do and God backs us up in eternity. Rather, it is God who determines the laws of his/her kingdom first (certainly, not the rabbis and leaders of this world!), and the gives us the keys to open the entryways to the Kingdom of Heaven from within our earthly dwellings.

What are these keys if not the insights we glean from reading the Scriptures, personal prayer, and thoughtful conversations with each other? These keys are free for us to take hold of and use, but where are the locks? If I was to belabour the analogy, I would say that the locks are the moments of discernment and ethical decision-making, and the power to turn the key is love. In that regard, we continue to learn from our ancient and current teachers, and Jesus himself.

For example, we may choose to meditate on the wisdom literature that forms part of our scriptures, including the psalms. They do, of course, give us the words to pray when we can’t come up with those of our own. But even more importantly, the psalms offer us examples of someone else’s prayers used in various life situations -- a glimpse into their discernment, and a model of constructing a personal relationship with God. The psalmists seem to have what is called a holy “fear of the LORD”—not a servile fear, but a mature one—wanting to honor his God and never disappoint him, all the while remaining quite mindful of their weaknesses, especially when faced with life’s challenges and uncertainty of the future. And as we know from other wisdom texts, the “fear of the law” is the beginning of three things: wisdom, knowledge, and God’s love. Perhaps, these are, in fact, the true keys to the Kingdom of God, with which we have all been entrusted. May we continue to hold them close to our hearts, use them for the benefit of the entire Creation, and uphold each other in applying them in such a way.