By Elizabeth Baumann
Reading from Acts, 14:1-18
1 The same thing occurred in Iconium, where Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. 2But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. 3So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them. 4But the residents of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. 5And when an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to maltreat them and to stone them, 6the apostles learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country; 7and there they continued proclaiming the good news.
8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice.
14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15”Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good — giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 18Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.
Without remembering it exactly, I’m pretty sure there was an episode of Gilligan’s Island based on today’s episode from Acts. At least, it feels almost that silly. The local Greeks take Paul and Barnabas for two of their gods and come to make sacrifices to them. Apparently, they saw Paul healing people, and heard him preaching without listening to what he said.
The difference, of course, in other such stories, is that those who are taken for gods acquiesce to the role. If people are foolish enough to believe we’re gods, the rationalization goes, then we ought to use our influence over them for their benefit — or ours — or the general good — or something.
But Paul and Barnabas, realizing what has happened — and is about to happen — lose no time and spare no dramatics to put a stop to the delusion. This is radical honesty, radical integrity. The story sounds a bit silly to us, but it isn’t. Even now we see those with talents and authority through rose-colored glasses — or through scarlet when we don’t like what they do. Most lay people see their priest as larger-than-life. Clergy do something similar to bishops. Not to mention what we do to politicians, professors, scientists, celebrities, judges.
There are plenty of times most everyone fails to recognize someone as a simple human being, no more or less, which means there’s a decent chance that sometime or other we’ll stand where Paul and Barnabas did — being offered homage we don’t deserve. It probably won’t be as obvious as being taken for a god, but it will be flattering and tempting, and likely there will be an easy rationalization for accepting it. Will we be as radically dedicated to honesty as Paul and Barnabas were?
Elizabeth Baumann is a seminary graduate, a priest’s wife, and the mother of two small daughters. A transplant from the West Coast, she now lives in “the middle of nowhere” in the Midwest with too many cats.
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