Jewish scribes were the authorized teachers of the Scriptures. They wore a belt and on that belt hung some keys. These keys were symbolic of the knowledge, experience, and training of that scribe. Having these recognizable symbols gave you honor and authority because you had achieved a certain level of proficiency in the religious tradition.
The clerical collar is worn by men and women trained by their Christian denomination who then gives them the authority to serve as spiritual leaders. It’s a visible sign that the person wearing it has a position of authority in the church. It’s is about the closest thing I can think of that equates to the “keys of the kingdom” that Jesus gave to his disciples in our Gospel lesson.
The collar is like a key for me when I go into a hospital. It gets me through doors that most people cannot enter. The collar not only opens physical doors, but to some people, there is a door of trust that it helps to open because of the confidentiality that it engenders. Hopefully, when any of these doors are opened, the kingdom of heaven is revealed and people who are hurting receive peace, comfort, compassion, love, or whatever they need because of the interaction that takes place.
During my ordination ceremony, my Bishop conferred on me the position of pastor in the ELCA. He said, “I give to 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.”
Binding and loosing – what does that mean?
In two chapters of my latest book I focus on the parables Jesus told about sorting through the net cast into the sea and the sorting out the weeds from the wheat at the harvest. They refer to the adding and removing good and bad religious doctrines, laws, and regulations as time and conditions change over time. The kingdom parables are not about who is going to burn in hell for not following religious laws. In the text for this coming Sunday, Jesus gives Peter the authority (keys) to annul bad laws and institute good laws that serve love. Martin Luther had a lot to say about the authority of Christians to get rid of hurtful laws. Check out some of Luther’s quotes here.
I think binding and loosing means something like this:
When I was four years old, I got my first tricycle. I was allowed to ride it on the sidewalk in front of my house, but I was forbidden to go any further. When I was six years old, I got a small bicycle and I could ride it to the end of the block, but I wasn’t allowed to ride on the street. When I was eight years old, the rules were loosened and I could ride around the block and on the low traffic roads that connected with it. When I was ten, I could ride to the park a couple miles away on busier streets. My parents set rules and then loosened them as I grew in my stature, my knowledge and understanding, and in my maturity.
Then when I turned sixteen, my father said, “I’m giving you the keys to the car” and a whole new set of rules was put in place. Many things were bound on earth until I had gained the maturity and experience and trust, as my parents discerned my ability to handle more complex situations. Then they loosed some of those restrictions. That’s what binding and loosing means.
Disciples trained under the supervision of a well-respected and established rabbi. When they demonstrated that they knew his teaching well, they were given the authority to interpret Scripture according to the teaching of their mentor.
Every once in a while, a rabbi would come along who was teaching a new way of interpreting the Scriptures. To do this took great courage because that rabbi was claiming that he understood Scriptures nearer to what God intended than the rabbis who came before him.
The new rabbi would say things like, “You have heard it was said ‘the scriptures should be understood this way,’ but I tell you, ‘this is what God really wants.’” That’s what Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I tell you ‘do not resist an evil person”
… and he also said, “You have heard it was said,’ You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’ but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’” (Matt. 5:38-39; 43-44)
So this process of reinterpreting the Scriptures was called “binding and loosing.” To “bind” something was to forbid it. To “loose” something was to allow it. Once a rabbi taught his disciples his interpretations, he then gave them authority to forbid things as circumstances changed and to let go of rules when those restrictions were no longer needed. The guide to making these changes would be to bring things more in line with the teachings of the one who trained them.
And the rest is history. Peter accepted that authority in Acts 10 when he came to the understanding that no animal God has made is unclean. We get to eat shrimp and lobster, pork and bacon which were forbidden in the Old Testament. We were set free to enjoy these gifts of God.
Then Peter took it beyond the literal interpretation when he said that no human being is unclean or profane just because they are born to a certain tribe or nation. He encouraged Christians to accept Gentiles, not to look down on them. They, too, are beloved children of God.
We are disciples of Jesus who study his teachings. He gives us the keys of the kingdom of heaven. We have the authority to bind and loose the Scriptures as they apply or do not apply to his teachings. We have the authority to bind and loose laws and regulations that hurt people, no matter if those laws are written in church constitutions or in the Bible (see Luther’s quotes).
If you want further justification that the kingdom of heaven/God involves “binding and loosing” of those things that bring division and disharmony, as well as evidence that Jesus’s parables were not about the afterlife, read my book about the kingdom of heaven. I guarantee you’ll discover some new ways of hearing Jesus’s parables that make a lot more sense. And if you don’t, I’ll personally give you your money back.
Jesus bound these commands on earth: Love the Lord your God with all your heart. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love your enemies. Love each other. Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
You don’t have to have a clerical collar to receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven if you are a student of Jesus. You are the priesthood of believers. Jesus gives you and me the keys of the kingdom, and the authority to bind and loose laws in the Bible if, like Peter, you recognize and confess him as the one who reveals God to us, the visible Son of God, and, if you apply the things you bind and loose according to his teachings.
If you can do that, then like Jesus, you will be bringing peace, love, joy, healing, comfort, and many fruits of the Spirit into the lives of people who are hurting. You will be using your authority (keys) to open the kingdom of heaven to them.
 I give credit to Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, (p.48-50) for explanations about “binding and loosing.”