Anybody remember Gamaliel?
He is the guy who convinces the council not to kill the apostles in Acts, chapter five. The apostles had defied the Pharisees et al., who ordered them not to teach anyone about Jesus. And so the apostles rebutted by claiming to be speaking in obedience to God’s authority, which clearly trumped the authority of the council. This REALLY ticks them off, and they are ready to execute the whole lot of Jesus’ followers. It was an inter-faith dialogue, ancient near east style!
Enter Gamaliel. Only a lawyer could have come up with his reasoning. He said, in a nutshell, “If their plan is of human origin, it will ultimately fail and so we don’t need to worry about it. But if it really is from God, we won’t win, and what’s more we will be guilty of fighting against God!”
(By the way, for what it’s worth, Gamaliel is also the middle name of the 29th and worst President of the United States, Warren G. Harding. But we digress.)
The rest of the council was convinced by Gamaliel’s wisdom, and so instead of killing the apostles, they just had them flogged and let them go with another order to stop teaching. Needless to say, the apostles continued right on doing what they were doing and the story continued.
Where would we be without the role Gamaliel played in the story? He certainly advanced the plot a scene or two. Actually, as we learn in Acts 22:3, he was Paul’s teacher early on in his life. And tradition says that he was baptized a Christian by Peter and John, but kept his faith a secret so that he could, as a member of the Jerusalem council, provide aid to other followers of the Way.
But what about his logic? Would it convince you? “If they’re just doing their own thing, let ‘em! No skin off our nose! But let’s say for the sake of discussion they really ARE acting by God’s authority: well, we don’t want to mess with that, do we?” Tangentially, there’s a whole lot of fertile ground here to think about the pitfalls of claiming God’s authority (i.e. “God has called me to say …” or “God has put it on my heart …”) in the middle of a dialogue with another person of faith with whom one happens to disagree. (Click here to read more on this topic.)
And that gets me thinking is the application of Gamaliel’s logic to some of our faith conversations today. Peter boldly claimed God’s authority for himself and his colleagues, right in the face of the Jerusalem powerhouses, who also made the claim of God’s authority on their side. The situation could have escalated, but Gamaliel stepped in between and said, “Wait! Let’s see how this thing all shakes out. Give it some time, and clarity will emerge.”
(My friend Teresa has taught me that, given enough time, clarity will emerge.)
What if, instead of arguing with one another over our disagreements, we all just shut up for a while and let clarity emerge? God’s desire for this world will be realized, either in spite of us or because of us. Sometimes we get in God’s way and the best thing we could do would be to move aside for a while and see what happens.