Saturday, 28 June 2014

Beautiful Gate (Acts 3:1-11)

Beautiful Gate

Acts 3:1-11

This passage tells us about two men (Peter and John) who were about to enter the Temple. And there they encounter a man with weakness (disabilities) and was left there to ask for alms from those who visit the Temple. The place where he sat was said to be called as Beautiful Gate. While religious people entered through this beautiful gate, this man, who was left to ask for alms. This as it may sound strange but this incident is often used in preaching and even we personally often question, why this disabled man near a beautiful gate. As noted earlier this is usually and very popularly preached and interpreted by preachers as “The ugly beggar at beautiful gate and how God touched and made him beautiful again”. Which I think is one horror in Biblical interpretation and a terrible cruelty meted out to the person in the passage.

Beautiful gate and the disabled people made to sit there (“People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple”). We note that “people would lay him there”, I think that’s the clue for us to identify the beautifulness of the gate. Temples had beautiful gates and these gates are decorated to have people who are weak and should ask for alms in their inability. Which invariably makes those who are religious and pious, who enter in feel good by dropping a penny. This act of almsgiving itself made the gate Beautiful for them. Sadly, religious institutions cultivate the idea of almsgiving as form of attaining salvation. J. L. Gillin a sociologist writes:

“charity became a means of securing forgiveness of sin to the giver, a means of grace. Almsgiving, no longer the means of primarily of helping a fellow-man in need, became fundamentally a method of washing away one's sins.”[1]

This is true in the case of Beautiful gate. What would the pious religious and guilty ridden patrons of the Temple do without someone to make them feel good and beautiful? That someone is arranged by the society and religious orders by bringing in and filling them with people who are without strength to sit and ask for alms. They are the ones actually bring beauty to the Gate, because through them these pious are made beautiful through their pittance of mercy in giving their alms. What a cruel system of so-called Beautiful gate?

I think Luke was deliberate in giving the name “Beautiful Gate” to the incident. Dennis Hamm notes that there were two gates to the Temple, one was called Nicanor Gate and the other Shushan Gate. The later was sometimes called as Beautiful Gate, but he says that it was a “poor place to beg”[2] because was not much used by the residents. But, in giving that name Hamm writes that, the authors “historical inaccuracy ... may, on another level, embody the deepest meaning of the historical event."[3] I think the deepest meaning of the event is to contradict the very meaning of “Beautiful” by presenting to us the ugly side of religious mechanism of alms giving.

And this event is subverted even further by bringing in two more into the scene (Peter and John), whose very words strike at the heart of the incident. They say “Look at us … I have no silver or gold”, this brings them to the alms receiver (beggar, I would like to avoid this word strongly) level. These are the real religious and pious, who could instantly identify with someone at the gate. Yes, Identify and not objectify them as means for salvation. Peter and John identified with that person who was left there for sake of others salvation in and through alms giving. But Peter and John subverted the whole idea of alms-giving as means of salvation to the point of becoming materially emptied in their self-identification.

What was their idea of salvation? “…What I have I give you…” what do they have? as aforementioned they don’t have silver or gold. But, they gave that man strength to “Stand up and walk”. Let us not romanticize it too much, and get carried away by the miracle story. The strength of the miracle is in strengthening and including the excluded by giving them strength. 

It is easy for the machinery of religion to make victims of weak and strength less by using them to display false piety and false humility. But those are only Beautiful Gates for the so-called religious to make themselves look good by casting away few pennies. How many campaigns have we see in religious institutions which display pictures of the weak in their website and in their so-called outreach programmes. Religious institutions in the name of charity and other horrendous names exploit people by displaying their tear stained and dishevelled faces and bodies just to make a feel-good of them-selves. A false humility and piety which are only Gates so called “Beautiful” Gates, these Gates don’t invite but only exclude the weak and the exploited.

But it is one who identifies with them has the power to include them. Those who have Silver and Gold can enter through any door secular or sacred without any discrimination. But those who have neither Silver nor Gold will have to create a building without Gates and doors but has only people as pillars (porticos v. 11) strengthening each other.

[1] J. L. Gillin, "Vagrancy and Begging", American Journal of Sociology 35, no.3 (Nov. 1929): 424-432.
[2] Dennis Hamm "Acts 3,1-10: The Healing of the Temple Beggar as Lucan Theology", Biblica 67, no. 3 (1986): 305-319.
[3] Ibid., 311.

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