Sunday, 14 February 2016

Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter - Part 8

For the next weeks, my Sunday postings will be a transcript of the book "Simon Whom He Surnamed Peter" by the Jersey historian, the Reverend G.R. Bailleine (1873 – 1966).

Most of Balleine's books are either currently in print - as for example his History of Jersey - or online in the form of PDF versions. This book is not, so this is something different. As well as being a Jersey historian, Balleine was also a priest in the Church of England, and Ministre Deservant at St Brelade's Church for a time.

It is interesting to notice in this excerpt that far from winning all the conflicts with the Pharisees, Balleine sees Jesus forced into temporary exile by the Beelzebub slander: "Jesus left that place and went to the territory of Tyre and Sidon. He went into a house, not wanting anyone to know he was there."(Mark) . It is an aspect of the ministry that is often overlooked, especially as our other source, Matthew, conveniently leaves out that last sentence. Tyre and Sidon stood on the Mediterranean coast about 30 and 50 miles north of Galilee respectively. This was pagan Gentile territory.

At Loggerheads with the Church Leaders
by G.R. Balleine

FOLLOWING Jesus had for Peter unexpected results. Perhaps the most painful was the way it separated him from men he revered. In Galilee the religious leaders were the Pharisees. They were not a large group, for the strictness of their rules kept their membership small. But their influence was enormous. They were a compact Brotherhood, pledged to strict obedience to the whole Law of Moses, with no compromise and no fraternizing with law-breakers. To Peter they were the model Jews.

And they had honourably earned the respect in which they were held. They had saved Judaism from being swamped by foreign influences. They had championed lay religion. They had taught everyone to believe in a future life. They stood for taking religion seriously. Gamaliel's maxim, `Never pay tithes by guess-work,' illustrates the care they took over their religious duties.

They had much in common with Jesus; but they were bound to look askance at any new teaching. They came to Peter's house to watch and criticize. More than one invited Jesus to a meal sometimes with embarrassing results. They exclaimed with horror, when He told the paralytic, `Your sins are forgiven.' But what shocked them most was the company He kept.

When Peter joined Jesus, he probably thought, `I must be careful now with whom I associate.' But the opposite was the case. Following Jesus led him into very queer company. His neighbours in Capernaum fell into three groups, the Pharisees, the ordinary synagogue-goers, and the `sinners'.

The `sinners' were again divided into rich ones, of whom the tax-collectors were the outstanding example, Jews who waxed fat by serving the heathen and fleecing their brethren, and poor ones, the Amme ha-aretZ, the illiterate `sons of the soil'. A religion which laid such stress on a Book tended to unchurch yokels. `How can a ploughman become wise,' asked the Son of Sirach, `when his talk is of bullocks?'

The gulf created by difference of culture is not easily bridged. A suburban churchwarden does not often make friends with the rowdy bookmaker next door or with the louts round the gin-palace. Pharisees made exclusiveness a religious principle, `I will not sit with the wicked.' The word Pharisee meant `Separated'.

But Jesus mixed freely with both types of outcast. He made Matthew, a toll-collector, one of the Twelve, and, when Matthew gave a farewell feast to his old colleagues, Jesus was one of the guests. To Pharisees this was outrageous disregard for decency. They asked Peter, `Why does your Rabbi eat with this riff-raff?'

Perhaps Peter himself was feeling uncomfortable. As a decent fisherman he was not used to such company. But Jesus came to his rescue: `It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. My mission is to the law-breakers, not to the law-abiding.'

All through His ministry this was a source of friction. Pharisees could not respect a Rabbi who was a `friend of sinners'. It was the same with the Amme ha-aretZ. The Talmud re-echoes the scorn of the Pharisee in the Fourth Gospel, `This ignorant rabble that knows not the Law is damned.' Even the gentle Hillel said, `No Am ha-aretZ can be a Saint.' But Jesus considered the poor His most promising material, `Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the Kingdom.' He was the champion of the unchurched: `God sent Me to proclaim good news to the poor.' To Pharisees this was like the sin of Jeroboam, who `made Priests of the lowest of the people'.

Peter had another surprise. He had imagined that following Jesus would mean living ultra-strictly, multiplying the rules and regulations in which Jews delighted. But soon he found himself dropping things he had thought essential.

Fasting, for example. John had taught his disciples to fast, and Peter, who never did things by halves, had probably fasted drastically. Pharisees, too, fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. Peter had expected Jesus to order fasts of still greater austerity. But the atmosphere of the Jesus circle was so consistently cheerful, that fasting would have been hypocrisy. `How can a wedding-party fast while the bridegroom is with them?' Fasting slipped almost entirely out of Peter's programme.

And not fasting only. The same thing happened with many rules of the Unwritten Law. Every Jew recognized the Mosaic Law as binding; but no code can provide for everything. So Scribes had made countless supplementary rules, based on decisions of famous Rabbis. Of this Case-Law the Pharisees were the champions; but Jesus paid little attention to it.

The clash came over a comparatively trivial matter. The Pharisees noticed that `some of the disciples' did not perform a certain elaborate `washing of hands" before eating. This was a new custom. The Law required it only of Priests; but Pharisees insisted that laymen ought to be as particular, specially followers of a Prophet. So they challenged Jesus, `Why do Your disciples ignore the Rule of the Elders?'

Jesus made no apologies. Instead of dealing with the minor point, He laid down the far-reaching precept, `Defilement comes not from the outside, but from what is within.' Many years later Mark declared that `by this saying He made every kind of meat clean'. But neither Peter nor anyone else recognized this yet.

When Peter did not understand, he never hesitated to ask for an explanation. `Tell us what this saying means.' Jesus was disappointed with him. `Are you too still so dense? Can you not see that all evil springs from the heart?'

Then He carried the war into the enemy's camp, and accused the Pharisees of setting Scribes' Law above God's Law. He cited the word Qorban. It merely meant `an offering'; but it had become a common oath, referring to the offering on the altar (much as `by the Mass' did in the Middle Ages). Perhaps there had been a cause celebre, when an angry man said to his father: `Qorban! You shall never have a penny from me'; and, when he wished to retract his words, lawyers had ruled that oaths could not be broken. Jesus quoted this, and said: `You ignore God's command to honour your parents, because of some tradition of men. And,' He added, `you do plenty of things like that.'

Such an open attack on their teaching made the Pharisees furious, and the Twelve were startled. `You shocked the Pharisees,' they said. But Jesus ' `with the fist' (R. V. Marg.) or perhaps 'up to the elbow' (R. V. Marg.) was defiant. `Let them go. They are blind guides; and, if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the ditch.'

The Sabbath Law also often led to controversy. As the Twelve walked through a cornfield one Sabbath, they plucked a few ears of corn, rubbed them in their hands, and ate. The Pharisees charged them with reaping and threshing on the Sabbath. Jesus replied: `Hunger absolves from the letter of the Law. David and his men, when they were hungry, even ate the shewbread.' In any case `the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath'.

Jesus was no deliberate Sabbath-breaker. He went to the synagogue every Sabbath, `as His custom was'. But He refused to refrain from healing on the Sabbath. `If one of your sheep fell into a pit, would you not pull it out?'

One manuscript of Luke inserts this story:

Jesus saw a man working on the Sabbath, and said, `If you know what you are doing, you are blessed; if not, you are cursed!' This sounds as if it may be authentic. `There are no cast-iron rules. Even a commandment may be broken, when there are sound reasons.' But no Pharisee could agree. Their creed was rigidly legalistic. God's laws were immutable, and must be literally obeyed. To them the teaching of Jesus seemed subversive of all morality. Therefore it was their duty to resist Him. And He did not blame them. He knew how hard it is for men of strong convictions to grasp new ideas. `No one, who has drunk old wine, promptly desires new.'

But, as the conflict broadened, He did blame them for not living up to their own standards. A Prophet's traditional task was to denounce unworthy leaders, and Jesus did this fearlessly. He accused them of spiritual pride, `Thank God I am not like other men!' He taunted them with playing to the gallery. He called them `hypocrites', a Greek word which meant `play-actors'. Ironically He said that, when they gave a coin, they had a trumpet blown to make everyone look; that, when an hour of prayer approached, they stood at a street corner, that the people in two streets might see them praying. This plain speaking must have worried Peter, who knew their immense influence and the danger of antagonizing them.

But Jesus grew sterner still. He declared that their fussiness over externals often camouflaged shameless wickedness. They Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the mighty works that were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.' The Galilean Mission, that had begun with such rosy hopes of a rapid establishment of God's Kingdom, seemed to have failed.

Then came the Beelzebul slander; and on the top of that a new danger. The Pharisees approached the Herodians, Herod's courtiers, urging them to rouse the Tetrarch's suspicions about Jesus. This was hardly necessary. Herod already had his eye on Him. `This,' he said, `is the Baptist's movement over again.' The Pharisees urged: `It cannot be wise to allow a demoniac to collect crowds and speak wild words against authorities. Why not arrest Jesus, as you did John?'

The danger was urgent, and Jesus decided to escape. He did not mean to die like John in one of Herod's frontier forts. `A Prophet must not perish outside Jerusalem.' `He withdrew,' says Mark, `to the neighbourhood of Tyre and Sidon, and shut Himself up in a house, hoping that no one would recognize Him.' (In Tyre Elijah had taken refuge from Ahab.)

Here He was in a foreign land, where Herod's writ did not run, among a people who spoke Punic and worshipped earth-gods. He was no longer the honoured Rabbi, surrounded by admiring crowds, but a refugee, cut off from the work He had set out to do. The Pharisees had got rid of Him.

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