Keys of the Kingdom

Matthew 16:20-28

I heard a story once, I’m not sure if it was true or not, but knowing children, it sounds a lot like them. A minister walked into a hospital waiting room to see if he could be of help to anyone. He saw a mother and her four-year-old daughter were the only ones there, and he noticed that the little girl was fascinated with the clerical collar he was wearing, because she kept staring at it. He went up to the little girl and asked, “Do you know what this collar means?” She looked up and said, “I sure do. It kills fleas for six months!”

A clerical collar is worn by men and women trained by their denomination and given to them as a symbol of authority to serve as spiritual leaders. Catholic and Episcopal priests, and some Lutheran and Methodist pastors wear it. It’s a visible sign that you have  a position of authority in the church. The clerical collar is about the closest thing I can think of that equates to the keys of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus gave to his disciples in this Gospel lesson.

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 those symbols gave you honor and authority because you had achieved a certain level of proficiency in the religious tradition.

The clerical collar is somewhat like a key for me when I go into a hospital. I can go through doors that most people cannot go. I can visit people in the jail at any time four days a week when family and friends can only go on two specific days for only a one or two hour time slot. 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 those doors are opened, the kingdom of heaven is revealed and people who are hurting receive peace, comfort, love, or whatever they need because of the interaction that takes place.

In my ordination ceremony, this Gospel text was one of the Scriptures read as the Bishop conferred on me the position of pastor in the church. “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.” Whatever does that mean? I think it means something like this:

At four years old, I could ride my bicycle on the sidewalk in front of the house but I was forbidden to go any further. When I was six, I could ride my bicycle to the end of the block but I couldn’t ride on the street. When I was eight years old, the rules were loosed and I was allowed to ride around the block and the two low-traffic roads that bordered it. When I was ten, I could ride to the park a couple of miles away. With love, my parents made decisions to bind or loose their laws as I grew in my stature, knowledge, understanding, and maturity.

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 for me (forbidden) until I had gained maturity and experience, and earned my parents trust in handling more complex situations. When I violated their trust, like the time I rode in a friend’s convertible on a church outing rather than on the church bus, I got “bound” and grounded from driving for a month.

That’s what binding and loosing meant in the context of Jesus’ day. Jewish rabbis trained under the supervision of another well respected rabbi. One might say, “I trained under Rabbi Hillel and I carry his yoke.” Another rabbi might have said, “I carry the yoke of Rabbi Shammai.”  A yoke was the name given to the particular doctrine or teaching of the famous rabbi.

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 the 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.’”

Jesus did this in the Sermon on the Mount. He said, “You have heard it 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)

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. After teaching disciples his interpretations, a rabbi would give them authority to bind and to loose, to forbid certain things (to make new restrictions as circumstances change)  and to annul rules that are no longer needed, binding and loosing according to the teachings of the one who trained them.

Peter accepted this authority in Acts 10 when he came to the understanding that no animal is unclean this is made by God. We get to eat shrimp and lobster, pork and bacon because Peter loosed this long obeyed law from the Old Testament. We were set free to enjoy the delicious gifts of God. Peter took it a step further by saying if no animal is unclean because of the way God made them, then no human being is unclean or profane because they were created a certain way.

Because of this declaration, people with physical disabilities, crushed testicles, etc., (those previously denied priestly positions) are loosed to serve God in the church. They have been given the keys to open the kingdom of heaven to others, and to bind and to loose.

Jesus gave those trained in his teachings the authority to interpret the Scriptures as they apply to his teachings. Jesus’ commands were: 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.”

According to Martin Luther, love is the filter by which we bind and loose former teachings:

Sermon on Matthew 22:34-46, volume 5:170-183 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983).

11. We are also to notice here that all the works of the law are not commanded merely for the purpose that we simply just perform them; no, no; for if God had given even more commandments, he would not want us to keep them to the injury and destruction of love. Yea, if these commandments oppose the love of our neighbor, he wants us to renounce and annul them.

13. Therefore, when the law impels one against love, it ceases and should no longer be a law; but where no obstacle is in the way, the keeping of the law is a proof of love, which lies hidden in the heart. Therefore ye have need of the law, that love may be manifested; but if it cannot be kept without injury to our neighbor, God wants us to suspend and ignore the law.

 Sermon on Luke 14:1-11 taken from volume 5:159-168 of The Sermons of Martin Luther, published by Baker Book House (Grand Rapids, MI, 1983).

8. Therefore we conclude that all law, divine and human, treating of outward conduct, should not bind any further than love goes. Love is to be the interpreter of law. Where there is no love, these things are meaningless, and law begins to do harm… This is in brief spoken of divine and human laws. The reason for enacting all laws and ordinances is only to establish love, as Paul says, Rom. 13, 10: “Love therefore is the fulfillment of the law.”

17. As Christ here treats of the law relating to the Sabbath and makes it subserve the needs of man, so we should treat laws of that kind and keep them only so far as they accord with love. If laws do not serve love, they may be annulled at once, be they God’s or man’s commands.

     I don’t think you have to have a clerical collar to receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven, or to bind or to loose. I think Jesus gives you and me the keys of the kingdom, and the authority to re-interpret laws in the Bible if, like Peter, you confess him as the one who
reveals God to us, the Son of God, and if you apply your binding and loosing according to the doctrines that Jesus taught. This makes you his disciple. If you can do this, then like Jesus, you will bring peace, love, joy, healing, comfort, and many fruits of the Spirit into the lives of people who are hurting. You will be opening the kingdom of heaven to them.

This is getting too long. I’m going to have to add a Part II to this so I can come up with a few  suggestions on how we do this. Stay tuned!

What do you think about Luther’s claims?

I also want to give credit to this understanding of binding and loosing to what I read in Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, p. 48-50.

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