Gamaliel the wise?


Acts 5:34-42 (CEV)

But one of the members was the Pharisee Gamaliel, a highly respected teacher. He ordered the apostles to be taken out of the room for a little while. Then he said to the council:

People of Israel, be careful what you do with these men. Not long ago Theudas claimed to be someone important, and about four hundred men joined him. But he was killed. All his followers were scattered, and that was the end of that.

Later, when the people of our nation were being counted, Judas from Galilee showed up. A lot of people followed him, but he was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

So I advise you to stay away from these men. Leave them alone. If what they are planning is something of their own doing, it will fail. But if God is behind it, you cannot stop it anyway, unless you want to fight against God.

The council members agreed with what he said, and they called the apostles back in. They had them beaten with a whip and warned them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Then they let them go.

The apostles left the council and were happy, because God had considered them worthy to suffer for the sake of Jesus. Every day they spent time in the temple and in one home after another. They never stopped teaching and telling the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

Gamaliel got Paul & Co. out of a tricky spot – but how wise IS his advice?

He seems to be saying that if a human venture is not “of God” then it will fail (so we can leave it to wither) and if a human venture is “of God” it will flourish and there is nothing we could do to stop it anyway. On the face of it, it seems like a recipe for doing nothing in any situation and simply leaving it to either flourish or fade away depending on whether it is “of God”. At least we won’t then have been seen to OPPOSE God’s plans, even though we never actually supported them either.

On the face of it it seems like UNWISE advice. Human ventures that are not “of God” clearly DO flourish and take root – they don’t just wither away! Antisemitism, to take a current hot topic, is deeply rooted and flourishing around the world – the slave trade too (clearly also not “of God”!)

In a previous life I might simply have dismissed Gamaliel on that basis – what on earth could he have to teach us. BUT… it is at least possible that this being a long time ago and us not really knowing the man, I would be being unfair.

so…

Maybe it is wise to suggest that the context for this advice is a bunch of religious people from the same tradition arguing about theology – it is advice for a much more limited sphere than my objection assumes! Maybe in that religious context, Gamaliel’s advice is very pertinent. Why DO religious people spend such a lot of energy arguing among themselves about minutiae? Maybe Gamaliel is saying – these guys are in the same family as us. They’re making some pretty bold claims – but we have traveled together as a community of faith for thousands of years and we have seen great upheaval and change, some of it good and some of it not so good. Let’s just see how this one pans out – it might be phooey – but it might turn out to be something good. God has surprised us in the past! Chill!

That might be enough – it might help put some of our internal religious squabbles into context.

But maybe it’s more too…

There is stuff I should get on with – projects I should launch – and yet I have delayed and held back, possibly for fear they will fail. Maybe Gamaliel’s advice to me today would be – “Go on, Phil – have a go at it, make a start. Maybe it’ll fly, maybe it won’t – if it does, then that’s because the holy Spirit puts wind in its sails, if it doesn’t, then maybe that’s not what God wanted you to be doing just now and it is better to know than than not!

Cheers G – oh wise one!

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