Simon the Zealot:
The Revolutionary and the Redeemer
Luke 6:12-16, 27-31
12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
27 “But I say to you that listen; love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
The crowd is gathered in the central square in Jerusalem. Hundreds of people are milling around. The Roman governor is about to make a speech to the populace. The crowd is made up of a motley group of people. There are the civic leaders, the religious leaders, the unemployed day laborer, and those who were out on an errand, who stopped to listen. Average citizens.
But there is another man in the crowd. He looks perfectly normal, except you can see the adrenaline is doing its work. He is tense. He’s restless. He is not looking at the Governor, instead his eyes dart to and fro across the crowd. Then he begins to move, looking like he wants a better location from which to view the major event of the day. But he isn’t looking for a better view, he is looking for a specific man in the crowd. Then he spots him. He slowly shifts through the crowd until he is behind the man he has been seeking. He slips his hand into his tunic and pulls out a knife, and a split second later he has plunged it into the well dressed man. And just as quickly he drops the knife and blends with the crowd before anyone knows what has happened. The man who died was considered to be a traitor in Israel. He was a man who simply cooperated with Roman authorities. The man who struck the blow is a Zealot. A patriot. A member of the underground movement trying to drive Rome back to Europe.
The disciple we meet today is called Simon the Zealot. If we were to place him into the context of our own day we would say he belongs either to the El Qaida or the White Supremacies. He would belong to groups in our world that believed that violence was a legitimate means to their ends.
The Zealots became a name for a political party shortly after the time of Jesus. But it was also a name given to people who shared a similar view point that violence was a legitimate way to win against the evil of Roman occupation.
But lest we misunderstand these people, I need to tell you that they were not thugs. They were not bandits. They were deeply religious people. They loved God, with zeal. They loved the law of God with passionate intensity. They took their faith with great seriousness. They wanted God to rule Israel and to restore the Kingdom of God. But they also believed that if those who ruled them were irreligious, then that Kingdom would never come. So the best way to bring about the reign of God was to remove those in civic or religious authority who cooperated with evil, or broke the law of God. Since there were no democratic elections by which to remove corrupt leaders, the knife in the back was a way of casting their vote.
These people had great Biblical justification for their way of life. They could scan the pages of the Old Testament and find heroes of the faith who with sword in hand served the purposes of God. Men like Moses and Joshua who wielded the sword against the Canaanites, or the Judges who judged with the sword, some of the early Prophets like Elijah at Mount Carmel who killed 850 false prophets. Recent heroes, such as the Maccabee brothers also made violence look like an acceptable way to carry out the will of God. These men did not do violence for selfish gain, but for God and Israel and to bring in the Kingdom of God.
And Simon was a Zealot. Of course we do not know whether he personally had wielded the knife in some act of private justice, but he would have been identified with them in his sympathies if not yet in his actions.
Why Did Simon Choose Jesus?
But there came a day when Simon met Jesus, and decided to follow him. Simon is called Simon the Zealot. But in two of the Gospels he is called Simon the Cananean. That is not “Canaanite” which is a name for Israel’s proverbial gentile neighbours. It means Simon who comes from Cana of Galilee. Now Cana was the home place of Nathaniel, one of the first disciples to follow Jesus. It is also the place where Jesus turned water to wine. Later it was the place where a nobleman’s son was healed. Perhaps Simon first heard about Jesus from Nathaniel, perhaps he was at the wedding and tasted the wonderful wine. We do not know the details, but we find Simon in the group of disciples. Question: Why would Simon the Zealot follow Jesus?
It was obvious that Jesus was a leader of men.
Shortly before their meeting the leader of the zealots had been killed. It was now a movement without a leader. But Jesus is a commanding presence. People follow his words. Miracles follow in his wake. Simon may have been looking for a leader that could lead the disorganized movement. Besides all of that he sensed a zeal in Jesus for God.
The words about a Kingdom
Some of the early words of Jesus also touched something in Simon. Jesus talked about the coming of the kingdom of God. The Zealots longed for a kingdom that was governed by God and not Rome. Simon suspecting that Jesus might be the military Messiah would have been glad to join forces with such a person for such an enterprise.
A Change of heart in Simon.
It may well have been that Simon followed Jesus for another reason. He was a zealot but he may have found the movement damaging to conscience. He might have found the movement, filled with so many hot heads, was floundering and he might have felt that there had to be a better way. Encountering Jesus, and hearing words about the kingdom, but also hearing words about meekness, and lowliness, and forgiveness of one’s enemies, moved him, and perhaps he followed Jesus because he was tired of participating in the spiral of violence.
Why Did Jesus Choose Simon?
Why did Simon choose to follow? We can only guess. But there is a more important question. Why did Jesus choose Simon? I can think of reasons not to choose him.
There is Matthew.
Matthew is a disciple in this small group of followers. Can you imagine two men more naturally at enmity with one another than Matthew and Simon? Wisdom would have said choose neither publican nor patriot. Both men are bad risks. If you insist on choosing, choose only one of them. These men will be so at logger-heads with one another you will find no peace. Simon says “Drive Rome into the sea” while Matthew might want to justify why he collected taxes for them. These two men are just too dissimilar to work together.
Jesus and Simon
There is another reason not to choose Simon. If there is a division between Matthew and Simon there is an even greater one between Jesus and Simon. No two men could be more diverse in spirit, in means and ends than these two. Jesus is quite prepared to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. He will say “He that takes the sword will perish by the sword.” He will want to bless his enemies and pray for them. He treats Roman soldiers and gentiles with kind care. He asks his followers to turn the other cheek and go the second mile when a Roman soldier commands them to carry his pack the mandatory mile. And there are a hundred times I am sure I can hear the zealot saying “You’ve got to be kidding.”
There is a third reason I would not have chosen Simon. One has to think of one’s reputation. What will people say? What will they think? Its bad enough you have an ex-publican in the head office, but a zealot too? Even if Simon has left the movement, has he really changed his mind? He will be suspect for a long time to come.
But thanks be to God that Jesus is wiser than we are. He chose Simon not only to be one of his disciples, but placed him in the circle of apostles as one of the leaders of the early church.
Why am I glad?
Because the church of Jesus Christ is big enough and redemptive enough to include people from both ends of the spectrum. The outcast and the upper-class can find a home within the family of God. The rich businessman and the poor peasant revolutionary can both be included. People of astounding difference are included by God, not only in the periphery of His Church, but at its very center, working side by side – united by the presence of Jesus Christ.
I am glad for another reason. Some of us follow in the lineage of Simon. Some of us do not easily lie down and play dead when we are bothered by the injustice of life, whether among nations, inside this country, inside the church or inside our families. Some of God’s people appear to be tame souls who appear to be passive in the face of great evils. But others are driven by a divine impatience to bring the future into the present, and are less circumspect about means. Some of God’s children are driven by zeal and strong desires. And such are always welcome to the church of God.
There is a third reason I am glad that Jesus chose Simon, even though he was a bad risk. Because that is true of us all. God adopts a lot of problem children. He doesn’t get access to us as soon as is ideal. He gets some of us carrying significant hurt and with attitudes that damage ourselves and others. But he adopts us anyway, gives us his name, and takes a chance on us.
Simon the Zealot still
But one final note about our friend Simon. When we meet him in the Acts of the Apostles he still wears the name. “Simon the Zealot.” His zealot days are well behind him. Why doesn’t the early church call him by his other name, Simon from Cana?
My guess is that his zeal never flagged. There continues to be an intensity in this man, but with a difference. His methods have changed. He no longer thinks that a sword in the side or a knife in the back is the way to carry out the will of God. He is now a pacifist. He wants to wage peace not war. If it could be said of Jesus “The Zeal for God’s house consume him.” It would have continued to be true also of Simon. He lived his life in the grip of great desires. A desire to be God’s disciple, to follow Christ whatever the cost, and to proclaim the liberating good news of the gospel
Jesus had no desire to squelch the zeal in Simon. All he wanted was for his motives to be redeemed and his energies redirected towards good. He wanted anger to burn, but not against Rome, but against evil and wickedness. He wanted all of the passion of Simon redirected in love instead of in hate. That happened for Simon and he kept and redeemed his old name, Simon the Zealous!
What word does Simon have for us 2,000 years later? I think he might notice the lack of zeal that permeates our life. He might sense that there is not much energy for truth and beauty and righteousness. There is a care-less-ness about things that matter most. Many of us living without conviction. We are often compliant in the face of evil. This is the sin called “sloth”. Inertia of spirit.
Dorothy L. Sayers offers her analysis of the s sin of sloth.
It is the sin which
believes in nothing,
cares for nothing,
seeks to know nothing,
finds purpose in nothing,
lives for nothing,
and only remains alive
because there is nothing it would die for.”
Apparently Simon the Zealot was never afflicted by this dread disease. May we too escape its infection.