The Scripture text was Matthew 18:15-20
Where is authority found?
In the small fundamentalist church of my childhood, we had no doubt where authority was found – authority was the older white guy behind the pulpit. But his authority came from the Bible.
In the summer, we went to Vacation Bible School. It was a big deal, and on the Sunday after Vacation Bible School, we kids performed a program where we recited our memorized bible verses and sang some songs. One of the songs that always got sung was
That’s the word for me.
I stand alone on the word of God.
We even had hand gestures to go along with it. For the sake of decorum, I will spare you the hand gestures, but we had them.
The word of God was our authority, we said. We stand on the Bible, we said. A friend started a local church and named it Bible Baptist Church, because that was where they placed their trust.
But here is the thing – what part of the bible? We heard countless sermons on being “Born Again”, because that was in the Bible. But we never heard a sermon on “sell everything you have and give it to the poor”, which was also in the Bible.
We heard endless teaching on the Ten Commandments, but Jesus said the greatest two commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor, and I remember no sermons on that.
I was endlessly told that in Leviticus, it says that same sex sex is wrong, but it was never mentioned that in the same chapter, it tells you that it is also wrong to eat shrimp or to wear a poly cotton blend shirt.
Needless to say, I came to feel that making the Bible our sole standard of authority to be, well, problematic.
So where is authority to be found?
In the Jewish culture Jesus lived in, they had lots of the same problems we do trying to interpret scripture. For instance, steeling is wrong, according to the scriptures. But what if you find a chicken wandering down the road? If you took the chicken home with you, was that stealing?
So you would go to your local rabbi, who would here your question, and he would say something like “If you found the chicken within 50 yards of a chicken coop, then it is stealing. But if you found it more than 50 yards from a chicken coop, then it is not stealing.”
This decision making process, this discerning process, was called binding and loosing. You asked the rabbi, the authority figure, and he decided if you were bound to the law, or if you were loosed from the law.
This understanding puts a lot of the Jesus stories in context. We see Jesus binding and loosing all over the place. Throughout Matthew’s gospel, we have examples of Jesus binding and loosing. (I’ve taken these examples from Powell’s article.)
5:21-23: ‘You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.’
Jesus is binding the law prohibiting murder as applicable to anger and insults as well.
5:27-28: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ Jesus is binding the law prohibiting adultery as applicable to lustful thoughts as well.
5:31-32: ‘It has been said, “Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.” But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.” Jesus binds the prohibition against adultery as applicable to divorce and remarriage, and does so by saying that the Scripture that allows for divorce was a concession granted in recognition of ‘hardness of hearts’ and that it never expressed the actual intent of God – quite an incredible thing to say about the Scriptures.
But Jesus also looses his own prohibition of divorce for those instances involving infidelity, both here and in 19:9.
In 5:43-48, Jesus binds the commandment to ‘love your neighbour’ as applicable also to loving your enemies.
In 12:1-8, Jesus looses the ban on working on the Sabbath to get food when you’re hungry. He says that the way Pharisees bind the law in the same situation ‘condemns the innocent’.
In 15:3-9, Jesus binds the command to “Honor your father and mother” as applicable to caring for your parents in old age.
So now, we see that Jesus is doing something radical here – he is saying the authority figure for binding and loosing is not the scriptures, not the rabbi, but the community.
Is it right or wrong to work on the Sabbath? We know what the scriptures say, but what does the community say? Is it right or wrong for woman to preach? I know what the scriptures say – but what does the community say? Same sex relationships, eating shrimp, helping our hungry neighbor, wearing poly cotton blend – you ask me what is right or wrong, and I will tell you simply this:
What does our community say?
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.