Ruth Woodliff-Stanley

Year A

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Binding and Loosing

September 6, 2020

Revised Common Lectionary

Hi Everyone,

Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.

This week, as I read the gospel message outlining a process for being reconciled with one's neighbor, I am convicted by the gravitas of the work of reconciliation in our current social and political landscape.



Current Events & World Affairs

The Place of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice: Conceptions and Misconceptions

Paul Seils

The International Center for Transitional Justice

Former ICTJ Vice President Paul Seils explicates the complexities of reconciliation and its place in the work of tranistional justice in international settings contending with mass human rights violations.

Open in a new tab


What causes you pause when you contemplate seeking reconciliation with others?


Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.—Matthew 18:18

Lately, Christians in our cultural context of North America have had to reckon with biblical texts about reconciliation in new ways. The old ease with which we used to preach about the importance of forgiveness and the necessity to love our enemies has been supplanted by new awareness that how we construct conversations about reconciliation has everything to do with where we find ourselves in the narrative of our collective stories of sin.

In today’s gospel, Matthew gives a formula for seeking reconciliation with someone who has sinned against you. It begins at an interpersonal level and ends at a communal level. Even if the one who has aggrieved you offers no repentance, the remedy is not to throw them “away.” (After all, there is no “away” really. We are all embedded in one cosmic fabric.) But rather, to treat them as a “gentile” or “tax collector.” While modern day Christians have associated these biblical terms with those who are anathema to the faithful, these individuals were still part of the fabric of society. And distinctly singled out to be loved by Jesus.

The formula aligns less with our modern concept of outcasts who have gone “away” from us and more with an understanding of those with whom we are in transactional rather than transformational relationships. Jews of Jesus’ day did have dealings with gentiles—the sort that were essential in conducting the business of life. Similarly, tax collectors had a relationships with the community—ones that were focused on the transactions to collect what was owed to the emperor. What did not exist between these individuals and the community was the kind of vulnerability we need if we are to allow ourselves to be transformed in relationship with one another.

Today, reconciliation is no less central a concept to Christian theology than ever, but we have a renewed appreciation of the weightiness of the topic. In our current context, we are examining the role we each must play to make coming back together after life-destroying actions a reality. This week’s current events and world affairs lesson, “The Place of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice: Conceptions and Misconceptions," offers resources from beyond our own country’s social and political landscape for considering the work of reconciliation after horrific injustices have occurred.

Seils identifies a range of “tools” to support reconciliation, including criminal prosecutions, truth commissions, reparations, and institutional reforms. And he also names a range of “levels” of reconciliation—individual, interpersonal, institutional, and socio-political. Seils also makes a distinction between vertical (“committed by the state against its citizenry”) and horizontal (“between citizens and groups”) violence and discusses the different approaches required to address each type. He introduces the reader to the distinction between “thin” and “thick” reconciliation—where the former looks like peaceful co-existence or tolerance and the latter includes rebuilding trust, shared values and restoring dignity. He takes us into a deep dive of three examples—Morocco, Tunisia, and Syria—to illustrate the importance of context in determining the specific approach to reconciliation that is needed. Central to his argument is the fact that reconciliation is located within the larger enterprise of justice.

Clearly, reconciliation is no simple matter, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

If we refuse to do the work required to understand the context that has led to our estrangement from our neighbor, if we cannot engage the tasks that have meaning to the aggrieved when we are the offender, then our relationship with those we have offended does not end, but becomes merely transactional—or, “thin” as Seils uses this term. And for those who are the aggrieved, if the pain caused by the sin is so all-consuming and life-destroying as to render the ones harmed unable to be present for or to trust the work of forgiveness, even where true repentance is present, then relationships with those people or institutions that have caused the harm become highly limited.

Though we each have different work to do, reconciliation requires capacity from everyone involved. Where that is present, there is hope for transformation and healing of even the most infected wounds. Where capacity is not present in any part of the system, for any reason, the work simply cannot proceed, even where a deep longing to be restored to a lived experience of our fundamental unity is present.

What we bind on earth is bound in heaven. And what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. Our capacity to harm one another and our capacity to restore relationship both have consequences that reach across generations and beyond the world we see into the spiritual fabric of our human existence.