What does it mean to bind something on earth or to loose something on earth? And how will our binding and loosing have an effect in heaven?
It’s no accident that this text on binding and loosing comes immediately after Jesus told the story about a shepherd taking time to find one out of a hundred sheep that got lost. That’s easy to see in verses 15-17. But verses 18-19 tend to go off and refer to ethereal realms while verse 20 almost stands alone. Furthermore, in the text that follows this one, Peter asks how many times he’s supposed to forgive his brother. What’s happened with the flow of the text? Things appear choppy.
The text should flow naturally from point to point, especially if Jesus is teaching his disciples, because flow allows the meaning to be understood. Jesus wasn’t trying to be mysterious. He was trying to explain how to build the kingdom of heaven on earth.
What I’m learning in my re-translation of the Gospels is that if there is a change in flow, there must be more metaphor than literalism in the meaning, or the translator(s) varied away from the verb tense or voice. What we think is metaphor today was probably colloquial expressions of the first century that have been lost to us two thousand years later. People of that day understood exactly what Jesus was saying while theologians of today are trying to invent ethereal explanations that point to the end of the world or to the goal of the afterlife.
Therefore I think you’ll see that the flow of the text improves considerably when “earth” is taken to mean “the physical” group who has been called together to solve a problem, while “heaven” refers to the “mind.” Three heads are better than one when trying to be objective and loving in response to a problem in the community.
This is another way to read the text:
15 “Moreover if your brother (the lost sheep) wanders from the path of uprightness and honor, to do wrong against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ 17 And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the whole group. But if he refuses even to hear the group, let him be to you like a person of the outside world and a tax collector.
18 “Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you (forbid, prohibit) on earth (in the group) will be (forbidden) in heaven (the mind), and whatever you (annul, subvert; do away with; deprive of authority) on earth (from the group) will be (annulled, subverted; done away with; deprived of authority) in heaven (in the mind).
[When there is agreement in how to solve a problem by a group, there is peace of mind. But peace only comes when the process is handled with love. Unfortunately, people take the next verse out of context:]
19 “Again I say to you that if two of you agree concerning anything on earth (in the group) that they ask, it shall come to pass for them in heaven (minds of those who agree) by my Father. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name (in the goodness and righteousness of Jesus), I am there in the midst of them.”
Contemporary religious zeal suggests that if two or three get together under the righteous name of Jesus and ask for a church van to be given to them for their ministry to seniors, the Power of the universe will go into action for them. I don’t deny the power of several people focused on their agenda, but this is taking the verse totally out of context. Jesus is teaching people how to solve their immediate group dynamic problems. The binding part is about prohibiting unloving actions. It’s not about deciding to set policies in place that actually bring harm to some people. And it’s not promoting the power of prayer by more people than yourself. This is not instruction on how to increase the odds of fulfilling your agenda. The whole point of gather two or three together is to stop unloving behavior committed against a person violating love in the community.
That’s why Peter, no longer coming from out of the blue, asks, “How many times should I forgive my brother (the wayward sheep) who is doing harm to someone in the community? What do you do with a non-compliant or non-conforming brother or sister? This answers a big question at the end of verse 17 when Jesus said, “Let him be to you like a Gentile/heathen and a tax collector.” What did that mean? It sounds like Jesus says it’s okay to kick him out. Therefore Peter asks our question and Jesus says, “If he is sorry and says he won’t do it again – forgive him. Let it go and get back to my work.” If he isn’t sorry, if he doesn’t want to follow the decision of the group, then let him go his own way. “These are the rules we go by in this group. If you want to be part of us, we’d love that. But these are the rules we live by.”
Always open and inviting. It’s an open door policy. You can come in and be a part of the group or you can try to find a group with rules you are willing to follow. Either way, we wish you well because you are a child of God and God has a purpose for you. Binding and loosing in love, that’s our calling.