There are a few passages in the Christian Scriptures that aren’t easily reconcilable with modern sensibilities. The selection from the Acts of the Apostles in today’s first reading is an example of a perspective from the ancient world that might merit the disapproval of many people in the twenty-first century.
Today’s first reading says that the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia were exceedingly hostile toward Paul and Barnabas. The description of the reception that Paul and Barnabas received is less than charitable toward the Jewish residents of Antioch. Perhaps, it might be helpful for us to remember that the Acts of the Apostles was written several decades after Paul’s missionary journeys. The text was written at a time when Judaism was facing a serious threat from the Roman Empire. The on-going conflicts in the middle east threatened the survival of Jewish religion, and the consequences of that threat extended to the disciples of Jesus.
In spite of those historical circumstances in the ancient world, I am still uncomfortable with this passage of the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, for a long time, I was very uncomfortable with St. Paul and his activities.
There are numerous descriptions of Paul and his activities recorded in the Christian Scriptures. In those descriptions, Paul appears to be an extremist, a man for whom the world is a place where good and evil are sharply delineated and easily distinguished from one another. I find this perspective on Paul and his preaching to be difficult to reconcile with my observations of the world. It is obvious, even to the casual observer, that there is moral good and moral evil in the world. There are some actions and choices that are clearly good and other actions and choices that are clearly evil. Most of one’s life, however, is not lived in those areas where morality is clear and unambiguous. On the contrary, most moral choices are not between good and evil but rather between varying degrees of good. The depictions of Paul in the Scriptures make him look somewhat off-putting, not because his views aren’t “politically correct,” but because his views appear to be irreconcilable Jesus’ command that his disciples are to love other people in the way that God loves them.
Recently, I’ve had a change of heart about Paul. What used to look like extremism to me, now has begun to look like an authentic expression of Christian charity. My change of heart was the result of a very insightful, and very funny, commentary on Paul by Eleonore Stump, a professor of Philosophy at St. Louis University.
Professor Stump proposed an ironical re-write of Paul’s address to the people of Antioch in Pisidia. Satirizing the emotional pandering that has become a hallmark of western culture in the twenty-first century, Professor Stump suggested that a more sensitive Paul of Tarsus would have immediately apologized to the people whom he offended by his preaching. He would have affirmed their feelings and validated their opinions. In doing so, he would have allowed them to remain ignorant of the teachings of Jesus; this would have been a betrayal of Paul’s vocation and a rejection of the most basic demands of decent behavior.
Paul was a firebrand. He was probably the sort of person who would not be enjoyable company at dinner. He was also the kind of person who cared deeply about other people, all other people.
It is popular today – popular to the point of being obligatory – to acquiesce to the most ridiculous and infantile public displays of self-concern and self-destructiveness. I’m not convinced that this is a wise idea. I’m definitely unconvinced that it is charitable. Everyone is entitled to their thoughts, feelings, reactions, and choices, but no one is entitled to impose their emotional needs on the public.
Vladimir Putin, for example, could probably be more evil if he tried a little harder but without trying, he’s completely reprehensible. Protestors who act violently in the name of protecting human life or protecting human rights are protecting nothing but their own disordered desire to be the center of everyone’s attention. Elected officials who fawn over the most vocal and radical of their constituents are serving no one’s best interests. More to the point, Christians who are afraid to be identified publicly as disciples of Jesus aren’t being polite; they’re being negligent.
It’s unlikely that I could be friends with Paul of Tarsus; he would probably get on my nerves rather quickly. I must admire both his zeal and his charity, however, because he was unwilling to miss an opportunity to share his faith with others.
I’ve always believed firmly that all people are entitled to their own mistakes, but I am equally convinced that it’s a mistake to miss an opportunity to offer all people the possibility of reconciliation with God and neighbor.
Paul was a man driven, but he was driven by the most admirable of desires. As he said in today’s first reading, he believed that the disciples of Jesus were “a light to the world” and “an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:47) This would be, by no means, an insult if it could be said about us.