Simon's Story

Tue, 7 May 2013 | norman

When he was a kid, Simon's dad would take him out on the Sea, and Simon loved the smell, and the feel of the wind off the water. His dad taught him about fish and fishing. But it wasn't fish that fascinated him. It was stories.

Simon's dad was a fisherman. When he was a kid, his dad would take him out on the Sea, and Simon loved the smell, and the feel of the wind off the water. His dad taught him about fish and fishing. But from when he was a boy it wasn't fish that fascinated him. It was stories.

Simon would listen attentively in the evenings to stories; there were stories of his parents' childhoods, and stories from the Torah, and stories of other famous people.

Simon would make up stories of his own, and tell them to his brother Andrew, and then Andrew would embellish them, and tell them back to him. Together they could build up amazing stories, and when they thought they were finished they would regale their parents with them.

When Andrew was in his late teens, he became a disciple of John the Baptist. It wasn't particularly onerous. Andrew would hang out with John, and John's other disciples. He would come home and tell his family about the stuff that John believed, and advocated. His parents were devout, and while they were a little more traditional, they respected John's fervency, and they supported their son.

Simon went to Jerusalem. He went to study law under Hillel The Elder. When Simon was in his late teens, Hillel was very old. Everyone said he was over 100, and Simon could believe it. But he was very wise, and Simon embraced his teachings. Simon was especially moved by Hillel's teaching on reciprocity; "That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn."

Hillel was impressed with Simon's enthusiasm. He knew Simon came from a poor family, unlike many of the other men in his school. Simon was also clever, but humble. Hillel noticed that Simon would often pretend to be more stupid than he really was, in order to put them more at ease, or in situations where their friendship was more important to him than demonstrating his cleverness. But Simon was always attentive, and would pick up on details of his colleagues, and especially of Hillel himself.

Simon wanted to know more than just law. He told Hillel he wanted to know more about Hillel's life. Over candles and wine, Hillel would tell Simon about when he lived in Babylon as a boy and a young man.

"What are the Babylonian stories?"" Simon once asked. Hillel told Simon about Utnapishtim, the Babylonian equivalent of Noah, the only man who survived the Great Flood. He told Simon the whole story of Gilgamesh. It is a story of friendship, and of great loss, and of the immortality that Gilgamesh achieves by passing on the story of Utnapishtim. Simon was enthralled by the story, and that a different culture could have a different character playing a similar role as the character in the Torah.

Then, in about 3770 Anno Mundi, Hillel died. Simon felt the loss acutely. He went back to his family in Bethsaida, on the bank of the Sea of Galilee. He and Andrew talked a lot about Hillel and John. Simon was impressed by the fact that Andrew's faith was active; that he went out and preached more than Simon had at the School of Hillel, and that he helped John with baptisms. Andrew was impressed by the teachings of Hillel.

One day, on a quiet day on the sea, just Simon and Andrew, Simon turned to Andrew and said, "What men need is to be caught, like fish. Their hearts, not their bodies. If their hearts are captured by a good fisherman, their bodies can be free."

"What do you mean?" asked Andrew.

Simon explained, "The reason we need laws is to constrain us from sinning. But it is our hearts that determine whether we sin. Our hearts need to be captivated, like fish, not by so many laws, but by a single story, like a net made of knotted themes and wonders and joys and sadnesses. It must be beautiful in its telling. And, and most importantly, its message must be inspiring."

Andrew asked, "Is its message the teachings of Hillel?"

"Yes," said Simon. "With the actions of John. But more. Much more. Do you remember how we used to make stories when we were boys? Let's do it again. But this time, our story will make us fishers of men. And by catching them, we will save them."

Simon told Andrew the story of Gilgamesh, and explained to him that it is the story that carries the message. Without the story people would never hear, and remember, and pass on the message. Even the characters may change. Who knows, maybe Noah's name was not Noah. Nor Utnapishtim. Maybe there was not just one survivor. The literal truth of the facts of the story are not important. It is how well-crafted the story is; how it can captivate you, and spread, like a net spread wide across the water. That is what will determine its success, and its ability to instil its message.

For the rest of the season the two brothers built a story. They studied the Torah and the Nevi'im, the books of the prophets. Their story was so moving that Simon brought Andrew to tears at the part where the protagonist dies.

Since he had been a boy, Simon had learned a lot about stories; about narrative devices used to draw the listener into the story. He didn't call them "narrative devices", he didn't have names for them, but he knew what they were, and he was a master of them. He and Andrew had roles in the story, as themselves. The story had miracles. It had tragedy. It had victory. It promised rewards for right behaviour. It promised forgiveness. And like the greatest stories, it promised to continue.

When the story seemed to have settled, after the finishing touches had been added and the superfluous bits had been tidied up, and having retold it to each other for the umpteenth time, when as boys they would have told it to their parents, they sat on the shore, Simon fiddling with a net, in silence.

Then Simon said, "This story is going to be bigger than we think."

"I know," said Andrew.

"We are going to have to back this story up," continued Simon, "You know that?"

"I know," smiled Andrew.

"This will change our lives."

"I know," grinned Andrew.

They were both grinning enormous grins. But neither of them knew how much it would change their lives. Not remotely. It changed everybody's lives.

They drew up a plan. They made a commitment to each other to stick to the plan. And then they implemented their plan.

They moved to Jerusalem. And started telling people their story. They told everyone. In fact, they didn't just tell their story; they lived it. Simon went by the name he had been given in the story, Peter. They established communities of people who believed in the story. Everyone spread the story. It was more urgent than just a story. It was news. It was great news. The people in Simon and Andrew's community started their own communities. And that was where things started to get interesting.

The story was working. People really were captivated. And inspired. The message really was taking hold.

Simon realised that this was also the moment when he had lost control of the story. His life was still telling his story, but from here on, the story was also narrating his life.

Some people were smart, like Simon. They could discern the message from the story. They understood that it was the message that was important; more important than the medium that carried it. They realised that the people they really needed to win over were the more conservative members of Jewish society who looked to the Law and the Prophets for guidance. Simon's story was inspiring, but it lacked the credibility of, say, the words of Isaiah.

And so someone found a prophesy in the Septuagint -- a Greek translation of the Torah and Nevi'im -- that spoke of the birth of a child to a virgin. Isaiah spoke of the birth of a boy to be named "Immanuel", meaning "God is with us", as a sign to King Ahaz of Judah that he can trust God to protect Judah from the threat of war with its neighbours.

When Simon heard of this prophesy he was at first impressed. He appreciated the understanding that had gone into attributing the prophesy with the hero of his story. But there was more to it. The Septuagint translated the Hebrew word "young woman" as "virgin". On the one had, being born of a virgin was a miracle, and miracles add to the wonder of the story, and provide further indication of the influence of God. But on the other hand, this particular miracle might be met with derision from Hebrews, who knew that the original meaning of the word is ambiguous, and does not necessarily denote virginity.

It did not bother Simon too much. If it worked for some, that was what was important, but he himself chose not to mention the virginity of his protagonist's mother.

The story's net had spread much wider than Jerusalem now. Wider than Israel. It had spread south, and north. It was heard by Greeks, and Romans. And embraced.

It was more than just a message about God, for Jews. It was a message about life, of course, and it was meant for everyone. When Hillel had spoken of one's "fellow", he had probably been thinking of fellow Jews. But Simon understood that reciprocity applied to all people. And that meant the message was also about politics.

Here things got very dangerous.

In the beginning, when Simon and Andrew had first moved to Jerusalem, they had spoken in synagogue. Then the community had grown and spread. Soon they were meeting in houses too. People wanted to give themselves a name; something that would differentiate themselves from those who had not yet heard, or embraced the message. They called themselves Followers of the Messiah.

In Greek, the word for "messiah" is "christ". And the Greeks called themselves Christians.

One man, who took this movement very seriously, was Saul. He was a Jew, and a Roman citizen, and he lived in Tarsus, which is in modern-day Turkey. And he didn't like this movement at all. On his way to Damascus, where there was a thriving Christian community, he had what today would be recognized as a seizure. He fell off his horse, and had a profound, life-changing experience of the divine.

Simon could not have seen this coming. Just as Simon had adopted a new name, Saul changed his name to Paul, and instead of being an enemy of the movement, became its greatest advocate. Greater even than Simon or Andrew. Paul was erudite, fervent, persuasive, and as a Roman citizen he traveled freely and widely.

While Simon saw Paul as a great ally, and a friend, they were never close. Paul was much younger than Simon, and had a serious fervour that did not take to Simon's jovial fervour. Paul did however have enormous respect for Simon, in no small part because he believed that Simon had met the hero of his story, and Paul had not.

Although neither man wanted to focus on, or draw attention to, their differences of opinion, there was one thing that Simon found extremely distasteful, but that Paul seemed to abide, and that was the divinity of the messiah. It was something that made no sense to Simon. But some Greeks seemed to have taken to the idea that in some mysterious way, the messiah, the hero of Simon's story, a man who had sacrificed his own life, was divine. Simon reckoned it was related to the idea of the virginity of his mother.

Simon recalled the story that he and Andrew had come up with, what seemed lifetimes ago, that day when they sat on the shore, grinning like idiots, and promised each other that they would do whatever it took to make the story succeed. Their protagonist, a man named Jesus, like John the Baptist, had walked among the people. He had healed the sick by miracle. He had fed the poor by miracle. But the miracles were just to show that he had the blessing of God. Most importantly, he had spread the message of Hillel; love your neighbour. And how should you love him? You should love him as you love yourself. Should you stone sinners, as you are commanded? Let the man who has no sin throw the first stone. How many times should you forgive? More times than you can count. He had treated a Roman centurion, his oppressor, as a brother. That is who your neighbour is. And when these actions inevitably infuriated the Jewish elders, they had him killed. Did Jesus avoid the repercussions of his teachings, and his actions? No. He had accepted his death with nobility. He had died for his message. His message will take all the laws of the Torah, and instil them in the hearts of men, not by their specifics, but by their reason. And that is how men will be free. That is the only way men will be free. Because it is not the specifics that matter. It is their reason. Love your neighbour as you love yourself. And everyone is your neighbour; brother, sinner, oppressor alike.

But wait. Wipe away your tears for the tragic death of the greatest man. Because he can not only heal the living. He can bring himself back to life. And if you follow him, and take to heart his teachings, and make your life a living example of them, then he will do the same for you. Soon he will return, and bring all his followers back to life, just as he did himself. And they will never die.

But this new Greek notion that Jesus is the product of divine reproduction, and therefore divine as God is divine, then that would mean that God sacrificed himself to himself for the forgiveness of the sins of his own people.

Why would he need to sacrifice himself to himself before he would forgive them? That's not righteousness; it's madness. It made no sense to Simon. And for all we know it made no sense to Paul either. What's more, it smelled suspiciously of polytheism, and as a result the more Greek-influenced version of the story became less appealing to Jews.

But the confusing new dogma was not as horrific as the fact that in some cities, Christians were being persecuted and killed. Simon, Andrew and Paul had a hard time writing and visiting Christian communities to support them and encourage them. Simon moved to the church in Rome, and Andrew to what is Istanbul today.

That day, on the shore of Galilee, when Simon and Andrew had decided their story was ready, they never imagined that people they would meet, befriended, and grow to love, would be killed for the sake of the message. If they had known, would they still have gone to Jerusalem, and started telling it to people? Well, these are birth pains of something revolutionary, Simon rationalised to himself. Yes. Yes, he would have done it, even if he had known. Because this message cannot be killed. It will survive, and it must be heard.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of his ascension to the position of Emperor, Nero chose to crucify the head of the Christian church of Rome. He thought this was poetic, considering he had blamed Christianity for the fire that had ravaged the city just three months earlier. Simon, like his hero, accepted his death with nobility. And in deference to Jesus, chose to be crucified upside down.

Another Christian, a close friend, and co-conspirator if you will, John, extended Simon's story, and, in the epilogue of his gospel, added a prediction of Jesus, where he foretold the nature of Simon's death. In this way John immortalised the sacrifice of Simon.

Simon had created the story, but his life had become not only part of the story, and but also part of the message.

Simon's story has been told and written and changed and rewritten. It has been used to justify great atrocities and great sacrifice, to oppress and to liberate, to educate and to suppress. But despite all that, it has carried the core teaching of Rabbi Hillel through years, and the lifetimes, and the millennia.

And today the time may finally have arrived when we, as a society, are mature enough and honest enough to see what Simon did, and not be horrified by the truth, that most of the story of Jesus is probably fictitious, but that we respect his motivation, and his and his brother's dedication, to death, for the sake of the message. A message more powerful and more important than the truth of any facts of their story. The facts are irrelevant. They are meaningless.

Love your neighbour.

That is the whole of the Bible; indeed the whole of religion. The rest is politics.

Now go, and do it.

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