Western society is becoming increasingly polarised by political views. Sadly, this polarisation is becoming increasingly evident in South Africa too. People are defining themselves, both consciously and subconsciously, by whether they are on the “Left” or “Right.” Being conservative or liberal seems, at least in some cases, to take priority over people’s religious or cultural identity. In a world where relationships can end over political positions, and people can be “cancelled” because of their preferred economic policies, Simon the Zealot’s story is one that the church desperately needs to reflect on.
Luke describes Simon as a “Zealot” (Acts 1:13; Luke 6:15). Zealots were political freedom fighters and activists. They wanted a Judea free and independent of the Romans. We cannot say the extent of Simon’s involvement in rebellious or militant activities. But the label indicates that, at the very least, he shared the political views and aims of the movement. This has tremendous implications for two reasons. Firstly, because of the way that he interacted with Jesus and his teaching. Secondly, because of the way he interacted with the other disciples.
1. Simon the Zealot Followed Jesus
We know that of the 12 disciples, 11 were present from the earliest days of Jesus’ ministry until Pentecost. This means that, with the exception of those events, where we are told that only specific disciples were with Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that Simon was present.
Simon stayed with Jesus despite his teachings on loving your enemies.
Simon would likely have been with Jesus when he affirmed paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). He would also likely have been with Jesus when he healed the Roman centurion’s servant (Luke 7:1-10). Simon, a man distinguished among the apostles for his enmity toward Rome, stayed with Jesus despite his repeated teaching on loving your enemies (Matthew 5:43-45), as well as his interactions with Samaritans (John 4:1-30).
2. Zealots Hated Tax Collectors
Matthew, another of the 12, was a tax collector. The fact that both Simon and Matthew were disciples should have been a recipe for disaster. Despite this, we don’t see any indication of that in the Gospels. While the Romans were seen as foreign oppressors, the tax collectors were often seen as sellouts and collaborators.
As a Zealot Simon shouldn’t have been able to stand Matthew.
As a Zealot Simon shouldn’t have been able to stand Matthew, yet we don’t see any indication of discord between them. Likewise, we see no objection from Simon to staying at Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:1-9), or any of the other times we see Jesus and his disciples keeping company with tax collectors (Matthew 9:9-10).
Are We Zealous for Christ or Politics?
What do these things tell us? After he began to follow Jesus it wasn’t his political or economic position that had priority in shaping how he lived. It was the teaching of Jesus. I can almost hear an echo of Simon’s voice as I think of Peter’s words in John 6:68, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”. Many others turned back when they had difficulty accepting the words of Jesus, but not Simon the Zealot. Simon chose to put following Jesus above the positions that once defined him. It may not have been an easy choice to make, and even less so to hold to. But Simon chose Jesus.
After he began to follow Jesus it wasn’t his political position that had priority.
Too often the command to love one another has been overshadowed by our political disagreements (John 13:34-35). Like Simon, we will meet believers that our political positions encourage us to vilify, and perhaps even hate. Yet when Simon’s radical political persuasions and Christ came into conflict, he chose Jesus.
When our political, social, and economic positions tempt us to act in ways that conflict with the things our Lord taught, which do we choose? Or if the decision is not ultimately one of intellectual articulation, but one of practical, unthinking action, which do we choose? When we have a Christian brother or sister radically different from us because of their political ideology or economic policy, which do we choose? Like Simon the Zealot, we must choose to put Jesus before these things if we want to follow him faithfully.