Binding and Loosing and The Good Shepherd Revisited

WilliamGuestsChurch1I am not going to write much on this Sunday’s Gospel. I have already done that on my blog post Binding and Loosing. Instead, I am going to preach about the rest of Matthew 18 that did not make the lectionary. This context will shed light on Jesus’ words about binding and loosing which were read today.

I start with the Parable of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and searches out the one lost sheep. We get this parable in the Year of Luke so it makes sense that we don’t get it this year. However, the contexts for this parable are very different in the two Gospels. In Luke, the parable is the first of a trilogy about God’s solicitude in searching out the lost, the other two being the Parable of the Lost Coin and the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In Matthew, the context is much more complicated and disturbing.

Directly preceding this nice pastoral parable in Matthew is Jesus’ admonition to cut off our hands and feet and pluck out our eyes if any of them cause us to stumble. (Mt. 18: 8) This sounds pretty unforgiving, but let’s look at the context of these frightening words. The chapter begins with the disciples asking Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18: 1) This seems to be a polite way of fighting over who is the greatest, one of the disciples’ favorite pastimes. Jesus replies by placing a small child among the disciples and telling them to be like that child and to welcome the child. Not the answer the disciples were fishing for. When Jesus warns the disciples that it is better that a millstone be fastened around their necks and they be thrown into the sea rather than cause such a child to stumble, he is warning them of the seriousness of being such a stumbling block. The same applies to cutting off hands and feet. (Paul Neuchterlein develops the relevance of Stumbling blocks on his commentary on this Gospel in his Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.)

What does this have to do with the Good Shepherd and binding and loosing? Quite a bit. When we, like the disciples, become preoccupied with who is the greatest in God’s kingdom, we are doing a lot of binding without loosing anybody. René Girard has taught us that the stumbling block, skandalon in Greek, is what rivals set before each other. That is, rivals become stumbling blocks to each other. As if that is not problem enough, the rivalry affects other people with the most vulnerable, such as the child Jesus placed before the disciples, bearing the brunt of the rivalry. The sheep that strayed has gotten lost in the shuffle. Which is to say that the lost sheep and the child placed before the disciples have been sacrificed. But what about the hands and feet Jesus would have us cut off? Isn’t that sacrificial? Yes, but with a difference. When we are engaged in rivalry and are placing a stumbling block before others, the rivalry seems as important, as self-defining, as essential to our being as our hands and feet. Jesus then suggests that it is better to enter “life” maimed or blind rather than be cast “into the eternal fire.” The thing is, it is rivalry that maims and blinds us. If we should sacrifice our rivalry, it feels like cutting off our hands and feet and plucking out our eyes. But if we do just that, we are free to walk and see. This freedom to walk and see enables us to see the little child and the lost sheep.

We are faced with the fundamental choice of sacrificing our rivalry or sacrificing other people. If we sacrifice others, we bind them and in so doing, we bind ourselves as well. So we have the power to bind or to loose. We can bind ourselves and others in rivalry, or we can loose others and ourselves by seeking the lost and welcoming the child Jesus places before us.

[For and Introduction to René Girard, see my article Violence and the Kingdom of God.]

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Binding and Loosing

AndrewPreaching1How many of us listen to Jesus’ words about correcting fellow members of the church and think they are about punishing people and casting them out? (Mt. 18:15-20) Checking ourselves for such reactions is a good way of taking note how instinctive punishing and excluding are to us and how less instinctive is forgiving and including and welcoming others. It is precisely this instinct to punish that makes it difficult to have ears to hear what Jesus is saying and hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

If we take a step back and ask ourselves what our instinctive reaction to being wronged is, we find that the first instinct is to seek revenge. If somebody hits you, hit him back. Simple. But Jesus tells us to go to the person and tell that person what they have done to us. This action puts a serious break on the revenge mechanism and moves in the opposite direction. After all, going to the person peacefully and honestly is the first step towards reconciliation, which is the last thing a person bent on revenge wants. If speaking one to one does not resolve the matter, then the circle widens to two or three and then the whole assembly. What is easily overlooked in this process as described here is that it presupposes that each of us is expected to take responsibility for the community and for each other. This is why we should warn a person who is acting destructively, but it is also why we should be open for others to approach each of us to correct us. Of course, anyone who has ever corrected another person knows that this can result in learning about our own shortcomings. One of our favorite slogans at St. Gregory’s Abbey is” “You do it too.”

Treating an unrepentant person like “a Gentile and a tax collector” sounds straightforward enough. We kick the person out and that is that. But that is not that. For one thing, this is not an act of vengeance, or at least it’s not supposed to be. It is an act of distancing, an act that, when used rightly, shows that the reproved person has distanced him or herself from the community. It is realistic in that some people make themselves impossible and a peaceful parting is necessary. But that is far from the end of that matter. Matthew himself was a tax collector. How was he treated? Jesus called him to follow him and be a disciple. We need to keep in mind the context. Immediately preceding this list of instructions for dealing with a delinquent person is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. All this suggests that the way to treat a Gentile or a tax collector is to try to bring them into the Christian community, which entails forgiveness.

Forgiveness? But we are told that those we loose on earth are loosed in heaven and those who are bound on earth are bound in Heaven. Sounds like we have the power to bind other people for all eternity and God’s hands are tied for as long as we want them to be. How much power is that? But not so fast. Why is it that we so easily assume we are being allowed to bind on earth when we are being encouraged to loose on earth? We need to note what follows immediately after this verse: Peter’s question about how many times he must forgive an offender and Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving debtor. If we have to forgive others as God forgives us, and that without limit, as Jesus’ saying we have to forgive seventy-seven times means, then we are indeed being encouraged to loose on earth and are being warned that if we do not loose on earth, we are bound to our resentment for what others have done to us (or we think they have done to us) and we will be so bound even in Heaven since God’s hands are indeed tied for as long as we refuse to let God untie us.

See also: The Sin against the Holy Spirit