Friday of Week 2 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 5:34-42

At the end of yesterday’s reading we saw that the members of the Sanhedrin were so infuriated by the boldness of Peter and his companions that they wanted to put them to death.

It was at this point that Gamaliel, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, stood up and ordered that the accused disciples be put out of the chamber for a short time.  Gamaliel was a teacher of Paul and belonged to the school of Hillel; he may have actually been a grandson of Hillel.  He was a leading exponent of a more liberal and humane interpretation of the Law, and was respected by the council members.  What he was urging here was in line with the teaching of the Pharisees.

As soon as the apostles had left the chamber, he addressed the assembly.  He warned his fellow council members not to be too hasty in their judgements.  He gave two examples of leaders – Theudas and Judas the Galilean – who started rebellious movements and in both cases attracted quite a large following of supporters.

The Jewish historian Josephus mentions the revolts of Theudas and of Judas the Galilean.  They must have taken place about the time Jesus was born.  Judas apparently led a revolt against paying tribute to Caesar – a contentious issue, as we know from the Gospel.  Although his revolt was crushed, it is possible that it lived on in the party called the Zealots. As we know from the scriptures, one of the apostles, Simon, is described as a Zealot (Mark 3:18 and Luke 6:15). However, in both cases the leaders died or were killed and then their movements fell apart and their followers scattered.

Gamaliel suggested that, on the basis of these experiences, this ‘Jesus’ movement should be left alone.  Their leader had also died and what was happening now might be just a flash in the pan. He said:

My advice is that you have nothing to do with these men.  Let them alone. If their purpose or activity is human in its origins it will destroy itself. If, on the other hand, it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them without fighting God himself.

Wise words…this kind of phenomenon occurs constantly and is frequently seen in our Church and, like Gamaliel, we should have confidence in the principle that, in the long run, the truth will always prevail.  We sometimes get very concerned about new ideas or new movements that surface in our Christian communities but the same principle applies.

In current debates about married priests, women priests, problems about marriage and sexuality we should be confident that in the long run the truth and justice here too will win out, whatever decisions are made.

The Sanhedrin was persuaded by Gamaliel’s argument, but they still had to express their anger and – quite unjustifiably – had the apostles flogged.  This would have been according to Jewish law, which meant 40 lashes minus 1 (the Romans, who scourged Jesus, had no such limitations).  It reminds one of what happened to their Master.  Although declared innocent by Pilate, he was still subjected to the scourging.  The council then repeated their orders for the apostles to stop preaching.

Far from being cowed or depressed, Peter and his companions left the court:

…full of joy that they had been judged worthy of ill-treatment for the sake of the name.

They were experiencing the blessedness that Jesus had spoken of in the Sermon on the Mount:

Happy are those who are persecuted in the cause of right: theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Happy are you when people abuse you and speak all kinds of calumny against you on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven (Matt 5:10-12)

Since that time many have been happy and proud to suffer for the sake of the Gospel and its message.  In recent times one thinks of civil rights activists beaten and subjected to attacks from savage dogs, joyfully singing “We shall overcome” as they were carted away to jail in paddy wagons.

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