If we were picking a patron saint for this year’s Lenten season, I think I would nominate St. Gamaliel, the level-headed Pharisee of Acts 5:33-39.
Oh, I know he isn’t a saint, or even a Christian, for that matter; but the perspective he reflects in that episode is one that we seem sorely to need in this season of belligerent faith-baiting.
What we know about him indicates he was a much respected rabbi – grandson of the famous Hillel, the liberal counterpart to the conservative Shammai in interpretations of the Torah, and quite possibly teacher/mentor of one Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22:3), who became our first Christian theologian.
The reason I nominate Gamaliel as a mentor figure for us now is the way he responded to the challenge of the Sadducees and later the Sanhedrin to the preaching and teaching of Peter and the other apostles.
His counsel was rather simple. After reminding them of how their righteous indignation had misfired before, he said: “Let’s cool it, guys. If this new reading of our covenant history is not of God, it will not amount to anything. If it is, nothing we can do will stop it, and we might even find ourselves opposing God.”
Wisdom is a better guide than passion, he seems to be saying, when facing challenges that threaten a community.
As a liberal Pharisee, might he have been drawn to the freshness of this message that empowered the weak, gave voice to the voiceless, hope to those in despair and wholeness to the broken? We don’t really know, but we can wonder.
Might the influence of his spirit have played a part in Saul’s eventual conversion from seeing faith as believing a certain set of propositions about God and as a reward for narrowly defined righteous living to seeing faith as a gift of a gracious God who made no distinctions between Jew and Greek, male and female, bond and free? We don’t really know, but we can wonder.
Quite apart from specific teachings, it could be that the influence of Gamaliel and his wisdom might have led Paul to think and describe his understanding of what God had done in Christ with words like these: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We don’t really know, but we can wonder.
We can wonder because of the way the life of covenant faith has been mediated to us: How many wise and reconciling spirits are there in that mirror of reflection that looks back on our journeys through the conflicts and challenges of our own paths?
Sometimes, their teaching is specific and explicit; but often it is also in the manner of response, the gentle patience that suggests that winning an argument or defeating an opponent is not as important as nurturing community and relationships, and possibly even learning from another point of view.
Perhaps Gamaliel can teach the Sanhedrins of any age that orthodox righteousness can transform a theology of reconciliation into a theology of annihilation, doing battle for the Lord and striking out at its perceived enemies with the goal of vanquishing whatever the challenge to its security system might be.
When a theology of reconciliation gets replaced by a theology of annihilation, the bridges that make community possible are burned, the doors that open to the stranger are slammed shut, the needs of the suffering become invisible, and the worth and dignity of a large portion of God’s children are denied.
The words of a familiar hymn sing easily but have a troubling aftertaste:
From victory unto victory, his army shall he lead,
‘Til every foe is vanquished, and Christ is Lord indeed.
As long as I can remember, I have heard encouragement to think of our calling as “winning the world for Christ.”
I wonder if it might be better to think of it as “reconciling the world through Christ.”
It seems that the complex challenges of life together in the human family can move our theology in either direction.
It can move, as it did with Gamaliel and Paul, toward an ethic of love and justice, of inclusiveness and the dismantling of barriers; or it can move in the direction of sharper distinctions, of higher barriers, and of more rigid legal systems as it has done so many times in our history.
What makes the difference between a theology of reconciliation and a theology of annihilation? And what makes the difference in the appeal of the two? We can wonder.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).