Binding and loosing

27 August 2017
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16A (RCL)
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20

Just what exactly is Peter to bind and loose? Jesus will repeat this saying just two chapters later, after instructs the disciples on working out community disputes, so that it seems connected to community discipline. But when he says it to Peter, it is not necessarily in reference to forgiveness and reconciliation. Instead, it seems to interpret the saying about the gates of Hades not prevailing against the kingdom built upon the rock.

The whole passage raising more questions than it answers. Jesus asks his disciples who people say the son of man is. This is not necessarily a reference to himself. The son of man was an apocalyptic figure, expected to establish the kingdom (cf “the one like a son of man” in the Book of Daniel). Matthew seems to use it in two senses; one as a stand in for ‘human being’ as in the saying about foxes having holes, but the human being having no place to lay his head; and in reference to this apocalyptic figure – the son of man coming on clouds of glory. He does have Jesus use the phrase in apparent self-reference in the predictions of the betrayal, suffering and death of the Son of Man.

So, when Jesus asks who people think the son of man is, it is not clear in which sense he is using the phrase. The disciples reply in this instance, that some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. After the Transfiguration, Jesus will say that Elijah comes first to restore all things, and that he has in fact already come (a reference to John the Baptist?). But, then Jesus changes the question: who do you say that I am. Peter replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Only one other time does Matthew use the phrase “living God.” The high priest, at Jesus’ trial, says, “I charge you by the living God to tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God.” It would seem Matthew wants us to connect these two passages.

Immediately following this pericope, Jesus begins to predict his passion, and Peter rebukes him. Matthew is asking us to reinterpret our understanding of what it means to be the Son of God. The apocalyptic figure of the son of man is a forerunner of the restoration of the Kingdom, the David monarch who will crush God’s enemies. The Son of God as the Christ will reign over this restored kingdom. Matthew, instead, point us to the Son of God as the suffering Christ. That begins to make a little sense of the phrase about the gates of Hades not overpowering the Church. One is usually concerned about an approaching army overpowering the gates of a city. The image of gates over powering a city (church) is a bit odd. But if one thinks of the gates of Hades as the open maw of death, then this church will stand against that, because Christ has entered those gates, and come back out.

If we are expecting a kingdom which crushes our enemies, we have misunderstood who God is. The son of God is crushed by his enemies, but not. If we are in the process of building that kingdom, that church, even now, then whatever we carry with us is built into it. In all of the sayings that follow concerning community reconciliation, we are encouraged to set aside those disputes which would tear us one from another. It is our hatreds that kill us. We must be willing to unbind them or be dragged down by them.

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