By David Baumann
Reading from Acts, 22:17-29
22 Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.” 23And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, 24the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. 25But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” 26When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, “What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.” 27The tribune came and asked Paul, “Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?” And he said, “Yes.” 28The tribune answered, “It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.” Paul said, “But I was born a citizen.” 29Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him.
Paul’s speech comes to a screeching halt when he describes how the Lord directed him to go “far away to the Gentiles.” Drawn for a few minutes to quiet willingness to listen, the mob erupts again into rejection of Paul and his message. Even if the mob believe that they are “zealous for the law,” as Paul was willing to concede when he began his address, it is now revealed that what is really infuriating them is the assertion that Gentiles — “those people” — are to be brought into the promises of God. This is what started the violence, and now it is rekindled and redoubled.
Maybe for some, true, though faulty, zeal for the law is what fuels this reaction. But for others, their zeal masks a sense of superiority by birth over others and a need to cling to that superiority. Gentiles were quite successfully claiming social and cultural superiority over Jews all the time. For some of the crowd, this holy distinction from other people is possibly all they felt they had.
Yet what Paul claims is not contrary to the law or to the identity of God’s people. Many times the great prophets spoke of a time when “the nations” would be drawn into the relationship with God that the Jews have. The promise began with Abraham himself, when God asserted that “all nations” would be blessed through him. Almost in passing and easy to overlook, Paul stated that, in his vision, the Lord had directed him, “Get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.” Years later, the situation has not changed, but this time Paul is not directed to flee but to bear testimony. May all of us be as faithful.
David Baumann has been an Episcopal priest for 45 years, 39 of them in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He now serves as part-time priest in southern Illinois. He has published devotions, articles, and essays, as well as science fiction novels and short stories.
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