Here is a sermon about the wisdom of Rabbi Gamaliel, who was one of Paul’s teachers. His counsel of restraint is just as wise today as it was in the days of the Book of Acts.
The Wisdom of Gamaliel
A Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 and Acts 5:27-42; 22 (sel. vss.)
Paul did not listen to the wisdom of his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, and he later came to regret it.
Paul was among those who were enraged by the witness and teachings of the apostles of Jesus. He thought Jesus’ followers were just plain wrong. They were dangerous. They were preaching lies. They were misinterpreting the scriptures, and they were dishonoring God.
Paul, then called by his Hebrew name Saul, threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of eliminating and erasing the church. It was he who stood by holding the coats while his colleagues pelted deacon Stephen to death. It was he who breathed threats and murder against the people of Jesus, dragging off to prison any he could lay his hands on. It was he who ravaged the church. Paul was enemy number one.
Or to use the imagery of today’s parable, Paul believed that the followers of Jesus were weeds in the field of true faith, and Paul himself was a self-appointed, industrial strength weedeater.
As we think about this, it’s important to remember that at that time, Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. The church was born inside the Jewish faith. This was a family conflict.
It’s also important to note that the religious authorities and council members came from different groups within Judaism. Pharisees and Sadducees held differing viewpoints on some matters of faith, and sometimes there was friction between them. They tended to disagree vigorously.
It’s also important to remember that some among them were sympathetic to the church, and some, such as Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, who were both Pharisees, even became followers of Jesus.
We don’t know whether Gamaliel, also a Pharisee, ever became a follower of Jesus or not. There’s not enough in the story to be able to tell, but the possibility is there. Some traditions say that he did. But there are a few things we can say with certainty about Gamaliel. He was well-respected then, and also down through the ages by both Jews and Christians.
Gamaliel did not think violence was the way. He didn’t think killing the apostles was the answer to the conflict. When he saw the rage in his fellow council members’ faces and heard them calling for the death penalty, he took the floor of the council meeting and called for an executive session. The apostles were taken out.
Then Gamaliel said, “Fellow Israelites, be careful what you do to these men. Remember what happened with those other men, Theudas and Judas the Galilean who had followings for a while. They both got killed and their movements fizzled out, and their followers scattered to the four winds.
“I’m telling you,” Gamaliel continued, “keep your hands off these men! Let them alone! If this program or this work is merely human, it will fall apart, but if it is of God, you won’t be able to stop it whatever you do. You might even find yourselves fighting against God himself!”
To put Gamaliel’s point succinctly: Be careful! You might be wrong!
Which is also one of the main points of Jesus’ parable about not trying to pull the weeds out of the wheat: You might be wrong!
Jesus’ disciples could easily picture the field of wheat and weeds. The problem was that the weeds looked almost exactly like the wheat. There was a species of weed that looks just like wheat through the early stages of growth. By the time it got big enough for you to begin telling the two apart, their roots were already so intertwined that it was impossible to pull up one without pulling up the other. Try to pull out the weeds and you end up with nothing. Farmers separated the two at harvest time after threshing. Sharp-eyed women meticulously picked out all the bad grains from the good.
The council in Jerusalem took Gamaliel’s advice up to a point. They didn’t have the apostles stoned to death, but they did have them beaten. By chapter 7 of Acts, however, they had abandoned his advice altogether. In the name of God, they stoned Stephen to death.
I am sure their adrenaline was pumping, and that they felt powerful and justified and righteous while they were doing it. Anger and indignation can feel good. And now technology makes it even faster and easier to express that anger. The internet makes it easy to fire off an email or to post an online comment dripping with venom and contempt. And it’s easy to express yourself in a way you might not if you thought about it a while, and if you were speaking in a person’s presence.
The sad thing is that this is happening not just in the secular media, but in Christian media and in online discussions among Christians. People who consider themselves more knowledgeable, more spiritually or doctrinally or scripturally correct, pounce on those they believe are wrong, and they are not kind or even courteous. They do not speak with restraint or respect. Some of it is almost hate mail. Christians will call one another names in the name of God, such as narrow-minded bigot or godless liberal. They call one another’s faith into question. Christians often seem to want to pile on with the weedeaters instead of engaging in prayerful, respectful discussion.
At least Christians no longer burn people at the stake over matters of scripture interpretation or doctrine. But at one time they did. One infamous example from our Presbyterian history is the story of Michael Servetus, a man who published a treatise calling the doctrine of the Trinity into question, since the word “trinity”does not occur in scripture. He also was against infant baptism. He didn’t think either one had scriptural backing. For this reason the Council of Geneva with the approval of John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Reformation faith, condemned Servetus to be burned at the stake on October 27, 1553.
But thinking that people deserved death if their scripture interpretations or doctrines were mistaken was common in that day. Even Martin Luther, writer of the hymn we love so well, “A Mighty Fortress,” believed that some people deserved to die for religious reasons. There were many executions, violence, and outright wars over matters of Christian beliefs. Did they ever notice the cautionary voice of Gamaliel? It doesn’t sound like it.
More recently Christians’ weapons of choice against each other have usually been words. I thought again about the story of Dr. Ernest Trice Thompson who taught church history at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary in Richmond from 1922 on into the 1960s. He also edited the Presbyterian Outlook and for many years wrote weekly helps for Sunday School teachers. (Go to http://www.upsem.edu/img/whoweare_pdf/FOCUS_Winter_2011-12.pdf, pp. 22-25 for a brief biography of Ernest Trice Thompson, including the details of his story summarized here.)
Dr. E. T. was a quiet, thoughtful man who was much loved in the community and across most of the Presbyterian Church U.S., which is what our denomination was called before we reunited with the former northern Presbyterian Church in 1983. I saw Dr. E.T. participate in a panel discussion when he was 89 or 90. His grandson, Ernest Trice Thompson III was in my seminary class and now is pastor of First Church, Wilmington.
It is hard to believe that the gentle soul I saw on the panel discussion was the same man that a few angry Presbyterians at mid-century had labeled a dangerous heretic and tried to get him convicted and censured in a church court. Why? There were a number of reasons. One was that he taught that the Christian life isn’t just about personal faith and personal righteousness. He believed that the Christian life is also about social righteousness and social justice. God is not just interested in making people new. God is also interested in making society new. Dr. E. T. believed that’s what the Bible teaches, and he spoke out on matters of economics and race relations for example. He spoke out in favor of desegregation and of women being ordained leaders in the church. In the 1930s a retired professor from another seminary started a letter-writing campaign against E.T. Thompson, and he wrote that Thompson’s teaching was quote, “dishonoring Christ and suited to do irreparable harm.” In 1941 someone brought charges against Dr. E.T. to the PCUS General Assembly, but the Assembly refused to take action against him. Dr. E. T. later served as the Moderator of the General Assembly in 1959-60.
Rabbi Gamaliel would question the wisdom of all these self-appointed weedeaters. What would Gamaliel say if he saw Christians today getting riled up and letting respect and forbearance fall by the wayside as they rev up their weedeaters against each other yet again? Does that really honor the blood of Christ, that blood that is our only hope however we might try to explain salvation? Does drawing each other’s blood really honor Christ’s blood that covers all our sins?
“Be careful how you treat these men,” Rabbi Gamaliel urged the religious leaders in Jerusalem. “You could be wrong! You could actually be working against God!”
Paul didn’t listen to Gamaliel, and he came to regret it. You can hear that regret later in Acts and in Paul’s letters. “I cheered on those who murdered Stephen,” he said in Acts 22, and he wasn’t proud of it. In 1 Timothy 1:15 he wrote, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the chief, the foremost.” And there are other similar passages. Paul was ashamed of how he had behaved.
If Paul had used the image from the parable of the weeds and wheat, Paul could have said, “I was so sure they were weeds, and I was wheat. But I was a weed. I was wrong!”
The wise course of action when we disagree with others in the family of God is to exercise self-control, which is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit, to think and pray with care and be slow to speak. The wise way is to approach one another with humility and forbearance and respect, recognizing that we, too, could be wrong. Recognizing that only Christ has the perfect vision to tell wheat from weed, and the skill to clean and separate the wheat and the chaff.
Recognizing that nobody has anything to stand on but the gracious, merciful blood of Jesus, the only thing that can make us clean and make us shine.
And that makes us blood kin to each other.