One of the passages that Christians frequently wrestle with, and sometimes argue over, is the statement by Jesus in Matthew 18.18, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." [See also, Matthew 16.19, John 20.23 and 2 Corinthians 2.10] These verses grab our attention, since the implications are serious.
Because of this, Psalm 146.7, as it is presented in the Psalter from Common Worship, caught my eye recently: "The Lord looses those that are bound; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind." The English Standard Version (ESV) translates that same phrase as, "The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind."
The idea of freeing prisoners recalls the revolutionary announcement that Jesus made as he stood in the synagogue in Nazareth and proclaimed to an astonished crowd that he was the Messiah by quoting Isaiah 61:1, 2, which Luke records as, "He sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." [Luke 418b, 19] Next, he firmly declared that "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." [Luke 4.21b] After saying this, Jesus sat down with no more commentary. Presumably to make the silence punctuate what he said and to let it settle into every one's disbelieving ears. As the Messiah, as the Son of God, he had the authority to make such a declaration and there was no reason for debate. It didn't matter whether or not anyone agreed with him. It was a fact; not a dialogue. I am reasonably certain that for the next several minutes the synagogue was filled with shocked and clarifying whispers, "Did he just say, . . .?"
The older I get, the more I realize how prone Bible readers are to getting stuck in a loop with a mysterious verse, while forgetting or missing the plain truth that surrounds it. Matthew 18.18 is one of those passages. You don't need to spend very much time in a Bible study, or at church, before someone asks about this passage, wondering how this might relate to the sacrament of reconciliation, and to the priest and absolution. Who really has authority to grant or declare absolution? Is that even what Jesus meant when he told the disciples whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven?
Certainly, it is very important for us to wrestle with the Church's teaching on reconciliation and absolution. But while we are asking those questions, or maybe before we ask those questions, we would do well to look at the context of Matthew 18.18 and compare that with Luke 4.17-21 and discover what Jesus was saying first to those people, before the Church looked back at those moments and carried them forward into the continuing ministry of the Church.
This is valuable because Jesus not only made an astonishing announcement in the Synagogue of Nazareth, he also provided a personal mission statement: He came to proclaim good news, which is liberty to the captives and the oppressed! His purpose was to liberate the imprisoned. Likewise, in Matthew 18.18, when Jesus declared to the disciples that they will have authority to bind and loose, it is in the context of people coming together to clear up a fault. The goal is to bring freedom to relationships that have been bound by offense, sin and misunderstanding. The Lord's teaching on reconciliation in Matthew 18.15-20 follows directly after he told the the parable of the one lost sheep that the Good Shepherd went in search of to bring home, to be restored to himself and the other 99 sheep.
The proximity between the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Lord's instruction on how to be reconciled with someone who might have sinned against us are surely no accident. They both communicate the Lord's desire to free us from captivity. To liberate us from what binds us. To open the eyes of the blind. The lost lamb, while seemingly free to move where she pleases, is unwittingly heading toward her own destruction, a place where wolves devour and consume.
Jesus revealed that captivity, blindness and wandering aimlessly will lead to destruction, unless the lost is found, the blind given sight and the captive liberated. The authority given to the disciples to bind and loose, is to continue the mission of Christ to free captives. Even binding the offender where he is unwilling to repent continues to punctuate the need for repentance and magnifies the fact that we are captive to sin. The lost, blind and unrepentant on earth are more significantly lost to heaven, because they have chosen to remain under the rule of the kingdom of this world. Those who repent on earth are more significantly free to enjoy the fellowship found within the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus it would seem, stated a clear fact: those who are bound on earth are bound because they have chosen to remain under the reign of darkness and captivity. While those who have been liberated are free because they have followed the Liberator.
When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61.1, 2 proclaiming good news and liberty for the captives, it was more than a proclamation, it was a resolution that was being fulfilled that very moment. He was calling his listeners to follow him and know freedom from captivity. Jesus gave his disciples (and still gives them) authority to invite people to follow Him and declare freedom from captivity. The lost sheep, of which we are, is loved and searched after in order to be brought home and restored to the family. The declaration of absolution after a sincere confession is the loosening of one bound by sin and grief. It is the pardon of Christ; the release from prison; the return of one home to her family.
We would do well to consider what captivates and blinds us now. Are dealing with sin on our own, or with trusted Christians? Personally, I think the arguments over whether or not priests have the authority to bind and loose, and, do we really need to go to confession, distract us from the gift that Jesus gives us through the Church.
During Lent this year, I offered a number of no-appointment-needed hours for folks to make their confessions. The only visitor I had was a lady bug. Do I think that people must come to a priest in order to receive forgiveness? Absolutely not! All Christians have direct access to Christ. However, I am concerned that we do not fully appreciate the value of the Church's role in aiding the loosening from bondage. We impede the Church's role when we gossip and do not keep confidences about others' mistakes. We miss out on the gift of the sacrament of reconciliation when we are too shy or too proud to make our confession to a priest.
Clearly, Jesus sees the Church involved in this process. That is evident, not only in Matthew 18:18, but also in James 5:16. No matter how uncomfortable it makes us, Jesus wants us to be involved together in prayer, confession and reconciliation. Our needed response is to be trustworthy as those who listen; humble and obedient as those who make our confessions. The resulting gift is immeasurable: release from captivity and healing from spiritual blindness!