Bound or Loosed

There are a couple times in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells His followers that what they bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and that what they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.  It may not be immediately obvious what He means by this, but my hope is that we can gain a little insight today.

Binding and Loosing was actually a rabbinic practice.  Teachers of the Law would bind and loose, and there are a few reasons that I think we should understand Jesus as referring to this kind of binding and loosing.  The first is that Jesus Himself was recognized, in His own time, as a rabbi – as a teacher of the Law.  This means that Jesus was someone who taught on the Law, where it was bound and where it was loosed (we’ll get to what that meant shortly).  The second reason that I think we should take Him as referring to this broader rabbinic practice is based on how often He engages in it throughout this gospel.  But before seeing where Jesus engaged in the ‘binding and loosing’ rabbinic practice, let’s just see what it is we mean by it.

Traditionally, we have understood Jesus as referring to absolution for sins when He refers to binding and loosing (this is due to an appropriation of the application of a similar saying from the Gospel of John, which is made in a different context).  For the teachers of the Law, the Torah was always authoritative; always relevant; always supreme.  Nevertheless, they recognized that there were certain circumstances in which its regulations were not to be applied.  If the Law applied to certain circumstances, they would say it was bound.  If it did not, then they would say it was loosed.  As you can probably guess, there were times and issues on which different rabbinic schools disagreed with each other.  Some felt the Law was bound in a certain situation, while others felt that it was loosed.  Or the other way around.

The contexts in which Jesus refers to binding and loosing, in Matthew, lend themselves to the understanding that this was the practice He had in mind.  In the earlier case (16:19), Jesus has just been correctly identified by His disciples as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, and has promised the conferral of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven to them (or to Peter specifically, depending on how you read the passage).  The implication is that what they bind or loose will have something to do with the keys to the Kingdom – or with the way to the Kingdom.  This suggests that the binding and loosing that they are doing is determining what is appropriate conduct for Christ’s followers – that is, what His “rabbinic school” sees the Law bound to and what it sees the Law loosed from.

The second situation in which Jesus refers to this practice is in 18:18, which is in a larger discourse on forgiveness, and follows right on the heels of His discussion of the appropriate method for restoring and reconciling with one in the community of faith who has fallen into sin.  The reconciliation lesson hinges on the disciples’ community having or setting standards which it requires its members to uphold.  Again, then, I think that we’re being directed to recognize that the binding and loosing that Jesus refers to is the binding and loosing of rabbinic practice, whereby the appropriate situations for the Law to be bound to, and the appropriate situations of the Law to be loosed from, are set and determined.

Now, with this much said we will do well to reflect on the appropriate means whereby this binding and loosing takes place.  There is a paradox present in this instruction: on the one hand, the Church is under the Lordship of Christ Himself; on the other, Jesus says that Heaven is affected when the Church binds and looses (don’t get too hung up on what “the Church” might mean, at this point – we will address this in the coming days).  Understand that we’re not specifically talking about forgiveness, when we say ‘binding and loosing,’ but we’re talking about the standards for the community of God’s people, within which we understand what sin is (and thus, what requires forgiveness).  Thus, somehow the standards of Heaven are subject to the standards of the Church.

The paradox is that the Church is subject to the Lordship of Christ.  At its best, the Church upholds the teaching of Christ and the standards that Christ lays out for it.  In such an ideal case, we can then bypass the middle man and say that the standards of Heaven are subject to the Lordship of Christ – a statement that most of us would be fairly comfortable with.  The problem with inserting the middle man is that we’re sure that the Church gets it wrong sometimes.  What do we make of this?  What if the Church gets Jesus wrong, and binds the Law when it should be loosing, or looses the Law when it should be binding?  Does Heaven still “go along” with the Church?

Well, in Jesus’ words… yes.  So notice what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven, which is in some way dependent upon the standards of the Church.  We’re not saying that God’s standards are in any way dependent upon the Church – we’re even recognizing that the Church could quite possibly get God’s standards wrong.  What is said here is that if the Church is wrong in its teaching: if it has bound the Law where it should have loosed; if it has loosed the Law where it should have bound, then the individuals who have been led (or in this case, misled) by the Church will not be denied the Kingdom of Heaven, simply for the Church’s corporate/institutional mistake.  Heaven will accept the one who bound where they should have loosed, or who loosed where they should have bound, though it be an unacknowledged sin, because the Church was in error.  What the Church bound on earth was bound in Heaven; what she loosed on earth was loosed in Heaven.

This is some rather abstract illustrating of the point.  Tomorrow we will begin to look at some more concrete examples of binding and loosing, pulled from the pages of Matthew.

Incarnation, Part 3

Back to the topic of making the Incarnation accessible to the average person. A couple of days ago I floated the idea of the Author writing Himself into the script of the play (Lewis’ idea originally, not mine). Yesterday I wrote about the Christmas story being an adult story, rather than a children’s story (though still accessible to children on some levels). Today, I’d like to draw attention to a particular story that I became familiar with when quite young (a movie made in 1982 told it): it is a story that holds some affinity to the Incarnation; it is a story that bears some meaning to children; it is a story with the potential to bear more and deeper meaning to adults. That is, Tron.

Now, I haven’t been big on Tron for a long time. I prefer the Narnia stories and The Lord of the Rings. Yet, at the same time, there’s something about Tron that resonates with the Christmas story. The story opens with an evil (artificial) intelligence that’s taken control of Flynn’s creation (a set of five video games that a software empire is built upon). This evil entity is commandeering, taking control of, whatever it finds useful. Those it can’t use, it pits against each other so that its enemies are destroying one another. Sound familiar at all? Well, as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the programs have no hope of saving themselves from this tyrant (the MCP) – though they still hold out hope: “Do you believe in the users?” “Of course! Who else programmed me?”

By a turn of events, Flynn is transported inside the computer system. He displays uniqueness: he is able to control things in the system by his thoughts; he is able to absorb the power (red/blue) of whatever program he is in contact with; he is able to transfer power to dying programs to save them; he is able, ultimately, to enter the MCP’s mainframe (certain death) and come out the other side. I could be seeing something more than is intended, but… doesn’t that sound Incarnational to you?

But maybe that’s another way to think about the Christmas story. Certainly the Tron movie is accessible (I haven’t seen the new one, yet, though I’d like to) to people; the concepts it wrestles with are presented pretty clearly. There are some differences, like the MCP zaps Flynn into the system, rather than him choosing that path as the path to save the programs that are being dominated by that artificial intelligence. But differences aside, there’s something about the idea of the maker being a part of the made… something about the programmer becoming a program… do you see?

Because that’s the other thing about the Christmas story. It’s not just about God choosing to be born in time, bound by space. It’s about the context that He chose to be a part of, to step into. He came to a world full of trouble – a world in which the devil reigned supreme, and the godly were few. Those who weren’t being used directly by the devil for misled worship or misguided distractions were being used by the devil to destroy one another through war. It was mentioned to me, not long ago, that Simon was a zealot and Levi was a tax-collector – that the zealots were sworn, in Jesus’ time, to kill such people. How many uncomfortable nights on the road did Jesus sleep in between these two men to stay the hand of Simon? What kind of turmoil did Simon suffer from, around the knowledge of befriending a tax-collector? The devil uses what he can, and sets the rest (as far as he is able) to destroy itself (and each other). This is the context that Jesus came to – not unlike, in some ways, the MCP’s hold on its own world in Tron.

And so if you’re going to think about the Christmas story this year – as I think you should – I want to encourage you to consider it on its own terms. Consder the world that Jesus was born into; consider the meaning that His birth carries; consider the significance of His birth for today, not just yesterday; consider Him. How great His love for us, that He would give Himself for us! What a blessing to know that He loves us in such a way that He would not abandon us – but is the Creator who choicefully shares with His creation.

Incarnation, Part 2

For many, today, the story of Jesus’ birth is – at best – a good children’s story (which doesn’t say anything about its truth value, just its intended audience), and at worst a “myth” (which in vernacular English refers to something that isn’t true, as opposed to scholastic English in which it refers to a story which may or may not be true – which is beside the point, in this usage – but which conveys truth – which is the primary purpose of myth in this usage). This idea of it being a children’s story is juxtaposed against the idea of it being an adult’s story. It’s fine for children; not for adults.

This puts the Christmas story alongside such stories as Goodnight Moon, or Green Eggs and Ham, and I’d like to examine the question of whether that’s an appropriate place for it, or not. Consider what makes children’s stories: generally, they’re stories that are easily understood – it doesn’t take an adult intellect to wrap the mind around a “great green room” in which there’s “a telephone, and red balloon, and a picture of the cow jumping over the moon…” Nor does it take an adult intellect to understand the different possibilities that Sam puts forward (would you eat them in a box with a fox?). And so it’s probably fair to say that one mark of a children’s story is that a child can comprehend it.

But we’re not talking about “See[ing] Dick run!” here. We’re talking about the Creator becoming a part of His creation; about the Most High becoming the lowliest; about the One whom the heavens cannot contain becoming fully present in one baby. This isn’t the stuff of children’s stories! This is the object of some of the greatest philosophy by some of the greatest minds that the world has ever known – and these have struggled to express it appropriately! It is not a simple task to wrap one’s mind around this concept – any who think that it is have failed to understand the problem, which is the only explanation for their having found the answer.

Secondly, consider what children’s books are “about.” Admittedly, my encounters with children’s books these days are for very young children – and there are children’s books with larger/deeper meanings than the ones I spend my time with (I know there are, because I used to read them decades ago). So what, then, is Goodnight Moon about? It’s about a child going to bed! At a most active level, it challenges children to say goodnight to everything in their room (a task which, if you’ve ever tried, can put a good many people to sleep). At a less active level, however, it just passively puts kids to sleep. If you think about Green Eggs and Ham, too, you’ll see a similar-level moral. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it” is the obvious meaning of the story (though multiple layers of deeper meaning can always be read into it, much more dependent on the reader than on the story itself though). These are simple morals for children; these are simple meanings – and these are another mark of children’s stories.

Consider, then, the Christmas story. Does it have a similar moral? Does it have a similar simple meaning? I think that rather than having this, it shows something quite complex. On the one hand, its meaning is encapsulated in all of that theological jargon that deals with incarnation, and calling Jesus the branch of Jesse’s stem, the Key of David, the new Adam, the New Israel. All of this is to try to express the significance of Jesus’ birth. But on the other hand, its meaning for the average reader today (the “carry away”) is hardly revealed in the same way as children’s stories reveal such things. It is, rather, a matter of interpretation – and any modern interpretation of it must take into account the significant interpretations of those who originally did so in the canon of Scripture. Jesus’ birth means that God is not an unmoved mover: the implications of this cosmological reality are far-reaching! The Christmas story is certainly accessible to children on one level, but it begs for a mature and responsible reader on another. It can certainly be read as a children’s story, as so many do, but it cannot be limited to such an audience – to do so would be to miss the entire point that the story begs us to find in it!

Incarnation

One of my favourite Christmas hymns has been Once in Royal David’s City. I think it’s one of my father’s favourites, which may mean that it’s inevitable that it would be one of mine. In the old blue hymnbook it has six verses, and one verse that particularly sticks out to me (both in memory and as I sing the hymn itself) is the second.

“He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Saviour holy.”

The opening line of that verse is, I’m sure, problematic for some people. Even I can’t help thinking of Kirk and his, “Beam me up, Scotty,” when I recite that “He came down to earth from heaven.” It’s a theological statement, but it conjures up images of aliens visiting earth – or of the crew of the Enterprise going on an away mission to the surface of whichever new planet they’re visiting on any given week. Don’t people have enough trouble believing in, and understanding, the Christmas story without notions of extra-terrestrial beings surfacing in the fore of their thought? I think they do – so how can we go about helping people understand the incarnation in words and terms that aren’t confusing and/or misleading?

Imagine, if you will, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Remember the story? If not, there are dozens of interpretations of it on tv this time of year so you can refresh your memory. I don’t remember Star Trek doing it, or Family Matters (ie. Steve Urkel), though Simpsons satirized that both of them did. But you can catch it live-action, or animated, or told by the Muppets, or by Black Adder. It is an enduring tale, and that’s why so many tell it – because everyone wants to take part in something so obviously “bigger” than themselves. So imagine the story:

Scrooge is visited by four ghosts – Jacob Marley (his old partner) and three others, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. Their purpose in visiting him is clear: that he might reform and change his ways; that he might learn to keep Christmas, “if ever a man possessed the knowledge”; that he might be saved from the end that Marley himself met. Writers will sometimes tell of how the characters in their stories take on a life of their own, as they’re writing, and that the characters can guide and lead the story into places that the author never intended, but must then go. The characters themselves have personalities and must have integrity to themselves.

Imagine, then, that Dickens had written Scrooge as a less dynamic character (ie. one who doesn’t change too much from the beginning of the story to its end). What would Dickens have done if, at the end of his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Present, the character that he’d given Scrooge had begged to be unmoved – if his statement to the Ghost had been, “Good – I’m glad Bob has that crippled boy. It makes it all-the-more-sweet that I’m stiffing him on his pay.” What if Scrooge had, in the morning when he discovered it was Christmas Day still, gone to Bob’s house and let him know that he’d reconsidered and would dock him the day’s wage if he didn’t come to the counting house immediately? What if all the messengers had failed? Well, for one it wouldn’t be a great and enduring Christmas story. But secondly, and more importantly, it would force Dickens (as the author of the story) to take more drastic steps in order to get the story to end as he wanted it to.

So imagine that Dickens himself suddenly appeared to Scrooge. “Scrooge,” he’d say, “I am the author of your story; I am the writer of your destiny. You need to know that I’ve got a much better ending for you than what you seem intent on making for yourself. Let me show you a better way.” Now, there’s every chance that Scrooge would still disregard such a warning – but there’s a special kind of force that Dickens himself could have with him that nobody else could. So what if he’d written himself into the story?

It was Lewis, I believe, who wrote (speaking of the Incarnation) that the writer wrote Himself into His story. For centuries; for generation upon generation, God sent His prophets. But people disregarded their message. Time and time again they would return to Him for a fleeting moment, only to return to their wicked ways. And so the author wrote Himself into His story – into history. God’s Son, who is God, became flesh of the virgin Mary and dwelt among us. “I’ve got a better ending for you than the one that you seem intent on making for yourself. Only believe; trust in Me.”