What appears to be a throw-away line in the Biblical text is not.Sometimes we read a something in a Biblical text that strikes us as a throw-away sentence. Upon a closer inspection we realize it is loaded with meaning.
An example is the sentence in the Book of Acts that ends chapter 9. The paragraphs that precede it describe the travels of the apostle Peter around Judea. He visits the town of Lydda. There he heals a paralyzed man named Aeneas. Then he goes to Joppa where he raises the recently deceased Tabitha from the dead.
It is at the end of this last story that the author states: Meanwhile he [Peter] stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner [Acts 9:43]. We may just skip over this sentence, believing it is just a filler to help bridge the text over to the next story. We feel we have no reason to care where Peter finds accommodations.
But Luke does tell us this, adding that Simon is a tanner. That little detail is what makes this whole sentence suddenly come alive. In first-century Jewish society, tanners were considered ritually unclean. Pious Jews, therefore, would generally avoid contact with tanners, because it would threaten their own purity. Simon the tanner was on the outskirts of both polite Jewish society and the Jewish religious community.
Yet Luke tells us that Peter chose to dwell with Simon while he was in Joppa. That is a bit surprising. It meant that Peter, the respected leader of this new Christian movement, was running the risk of incurring ritual impurity by staying with a participant in this despised craft.
In that little detail we begin to see how corrosive is the impact of this new Christian movement on the traditional ideas of Jewish purity and impurity. Peter is crossing over the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out in the religious community. Furthermore he seems to be walking a downward road, downward in terms of his own social and religious status. How can a respected spiritual leader act like this?
Jesus sets the example
Peter could respond, of course, that he is following in the footsteps of Jesus. Jesus, too, notoriously crossed over those boundaries. Jesus welcomed and touched lepers. He placed his hands on the dead son of the widow of Nain. He received tax collectors and prostitutes and extended forgiveness to a woman caught in adultery. The gospels make a point of telling us that Jesus often touched such people, creating direct contact with them.
Jesus overturned the Jewish laws on food purity when he announced to his disciples that nothing they ate could defile them. Instead what does defile them is what comes out of them in behaviors like fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, deceit, envy, slander, pride [Mark 7:17-23].
Jesus set the example. The book of Acts shows us how in baby step after baby step, the new Christian movement began live out this new spiritual stance. We see how the Christian movement came to embrace both Aramaic- and Greek-speaking Jews. Then it starts to welcome into the community outsiders like the new Samaritan believers, the Ethiopian eunuch, and now Simon the tanner.
All this is working up to the great and momentous moment, described in Acts 10, when Peter preaches the gospel to the Gentile centurion Cornelius and his family, and the Holy Spirit descends upon these new believers. This is Jewish Christians opening their spiritual arms to the ultimate outsider, the Gentiles. That will change the character and direction of the Christian movement forever.
Significantly it is the story of Cornelius that will follow immediately upon the sentence: Meanwhile, he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.
Peter shows that he already has the open heart and mind that prepares him for the momentous vision that follows in Acts 10:9-16. In this vision, Peter is told to rise, kill, and eat a variety of animals unclean by traditional Jewish standards. Peter protests that he has never eaten anything profane and unclean. But the voice in the dream responds, What God has made clean, you must not profane [Acts10:15].
Given this context, the stray sentence about Peter staying with Simon, the tanner, explodes with meaning.
This is the movement of Christianity at its best: welcoming the outsider into the community of faith as an equal with the already established believers. When Christians practice a closed-door policy over whom they will let in and whom not, they betray their heritage received from Jesus and his apostles.