Paul on Trial and the Meaning of Life

I’ve read through the book of Acts a number of times and one of the most puzzling things about the story of Paul are his actions toward the end of the book. After Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem at the riot in the temple  Paul’s self defense seems incompetent. I had always simply assumed Paul’s goal through these proceedings, as I would assume anyone’s goal at a trial, would be to secure his freedom. This time reading through the book of Acts that seems to be simply not the case. Paul’s situation in one form of custody or another, through these series of hearings and trials seems to be his desire to witness to the resurrection. While he would prefer to NOT be held in custody, whether protective or awaiting trial, his primary goal is to have an opportunity to bear witness to the resurrection through his circumstance, his person, his suffering and eventually his death if need be.

The Assumed Life

Culture is the water we swim in, the air we breath, the unconscious beating of our hearts, the things we assume, the manner of life we propagate.

Robert Bellah in a posting on Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” quotes Andrew Delbanco’s small book “The Real American Dream” .

Delbanco organizes his small book, The Real American Dream, into three chapters entitled God, Nation, and Self. These he sees, using Emersonian terminology, as “predominant ideas” which have successively organized our culture and our society, providing a context of meaning which can bring hope and stave off melancholy. In speaking of God as the predominant idea that first organized our culture Delbanco is thinking primarily of the New England Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Nation became the predominant idea from the time of the Revolutionary War until well into the twentieth century. Most recently Self seems to have replaced, or if not replaced, subordinated, God and Nation as the predominant idea of our culture.

Delbanco does not argue for strict chronological epochs, seeing many overlaps. Nor does he emphasize quite as much as I would or Taylor would the continuing centrality of Nation as a “predominant idea” in the United States, but who can doubt that, especially among the educated classes, Self has become a powerful focus.

We are, it seems, in the age of self.

A common irony I feel is that while most people would quickly offer up “selfishness” as a modern synonym for “sin” we very quickly suggest that duty some expression of our “true self” is a contender for our highest calling. This irony escapes us.

Mooki and Osama Bin Laden

All such archetypes are of course generalizations. There are those in every age who chose their paths based on larger, governing stories or powers.

My little dog Mooki in his unreflective way operates out of self. He likes food, he likes play, he wants to govern the home in which he lives according to his desires. Mooki cares about himself, and also about his pack of bipeds with which he shares his space.

For many Americans this history of the first decade of the 21st century was deeply impacted by Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden was of course far more complex than Mooki. He cared for his own life, but he, along with those who followed him also cared for other things. In the Wikipedia article on Bin Laden the crowd source authors suggest to us what Bin Laden lived for.

Bin Laden also said only the restoration of Sharia law would “set things right” in the Muslim world, and that alternatives such as “pan-Arabism, socialism, communism, democracy” must be opposed.[46]

Bin Laden believed that Afghanistan, under the rule of Mullah Omar‘s Taliban, was “the only Islamic country” in the Muslim world.[48] Bin Laden consistently dwelt on the need for violent jihad to right what he believed were injustices against Muslims perpetrated by the United States and sometimes by other non-Muslim states,[49] the need to eliminate the state of Israel, and the necessity of forcing the United States to withdraw from the Middle East. He also called on Americans to “reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and usury“, in an October 2002 letter.[50]

Bin Laden’s overall strategy against much larger enemies such as the Soviet Union and United States was to lure them into a long war of attrition in Muslim countries, attracting large numbers of jihadists who would never surrender. He believed this would lead to economic collapse of the enemy nation.[69] Al-Qaeda manuals clearly outline this strategy. In a 2004 tape broadcast by al-Jazeera, bin Laden spoke of “bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy”.[70]

What we see in fact is that Bin Laden had a very large and complex view of the world, deeply shaped of course by his religious beliefs, and that this view of the world shaped how he lived his life and what he devoted his life to.

Most of us seem to fall somewhere between Mooki and Osama Bin Laden.

When we read about Paul, his choices, his words, his behavior in the book of Acts. We should recognize that he, and all of those around him, are also acting somewhere on the scale between Mooki and Osama Bin Laden. They are somewhere on the scale between simply acting in their own simple, creature self-interest or operating in a much larger, more complex, more deeply meaningful universe. Central to that universe its actual content.

Paul Behaving Badly 

The Roman tribune who took Paul into custody, saving his life from the mob at the temple, like most cultural outsiders, didn’t have much of a clue as to what all of the fuss was about. Claudius Lysias must have known something about the people he was tasked to subjugate, but the language barrier alone, as we saw in the last story, put him at a distinct disadvantage in understanding what all of the fuss was about.

While Mooki’s motivational structure is quite easy to understand, others, like that of Osama Bin Laden is more difficult for us to understand because we don’t share his view of the world. Lysias decides he wants to try to get a handle on it by bringing Paul before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

Now this council will have its own political and cultural conflicts beneath it. As in most occupations the foreign power attempting to control the local population needs compliant intermediaries to bring some form of order.

The Sanhedrin was ruled by the chief priests, and the chief priests were appointed by the  rulers placed over them by the Romans. This particular chief priest Ananias was appointed by the brother of Herod Agrippa I. The chief priest held a position with a religious title within the tradition of the Jews but how could his authority not be compromised by the fact that his place was secured by the authority of the Romans who had their own agenda. Ben Witherington has this to say about Ananias.

V. 2 indicates that Ananias is the high priest. Everything we learn from Josephus about this chief priest suggests that the action he is said to take here is quite believable and in character. The son of Nedebaeus, Ananias was appointed by the brother of Herod Agrippa I (Herod of Chalcis) in A.D. 47 and remained in power until A.D. 58 or 59 (cf. Ant. 20.103). That he was far from priestly in character is shown both by his acts of bribery and by his allowing his servants to steal the tithes intended for the priests (Ant. 20.205–13). That he was prone to violence is shown by the fact that he was summoned to Rome because of his part in the ambush of various Samaritan pilgrims (Ant. 20.131). Ananias was also known for his pro-Roman sentiments, and this in the end got him killed by Jewish zealots when the Jewish war with Rome started in A.D. 66 (War 2.441–43; cf. 2.426–29). As a collaborator with Rome, it is quite believable that he would work closely with Claudius Lysias, and would have been willing to call a council meeting or at least an informal hearing if the tribune required it. In assessing what follows, it is in order to point out that Paul had probably had no occasion to meet this man, and certainly not during the period of his high priesthood. Paul had been away from Jerusalem itself for about five years, but more importantly away from the corridors of Jewish power in Jerusalem for over two decades by the time this meeting occurred. Much had transpired since the days of Saul’s Damascus road conversion.193

Witherington, B., III. (1998). The Acts of the Apostles: A socio-rhetorical commentary (688). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

If you read Acts 22:30-23:10 you’ll see that the hearing didn’t achieve the goals Lysias had for it.

I initially found the picture confusing. How could Paul be so self-controlled to return good for evil in the face of the mob that sought to take his life whereas here mouths off to the authorities and seems to leverage the present political conflict to get his butt out of trouble.

Paul Ditches Zen Just Like Jesus

One of the cultural confusions we have today is imagining that Jesus is nice. Loving your enemies doesn’t simply equate with “nice”. What we find both in Jesus’ life, and in Paul’s life as told by Luke here is someone operating in a very complex social, religious and political environment very intentionally moving towards a goal.

If we read Paul to have the motivation of Mooki, simply acting out self-preservation for his biological body, we don’t understand him. He’s gone to Jerusalem intentionally, knowing the dangers, and has now entered into the game he knew he would move into.

If we read Paul as some sort of Zen master or Gnostic, whose detachment to the things of this world and see his actions at the hearing of the Sanhedrin, we also get Paul wrong. Paul can on one hand speak with civility and generosity towards a blood-thirsty crowd that a few minutes before sought his life, while at the same time use very direct and pointed speech within another adversarial context in pursuit of his goal. We might only understand what he is doing if we understand where he is trying to go.

To say that Osama Bin Laden killed a lot of people in the 9/11 attacks just because he was a hateful, bloodthirsty man does not do justice to how Bin Laden hoped the attacks would play out in the larger drama of the decade, events we saw in the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similarly Paul isn’t just acting out against these people he doesn’t like. What he’s actually doing is bearing witness to Jesus and the resurrection.

Paul as Citizen of the Kingdom of God

While Paul has used his Roman citizenship selectively to his advantage (late in Philippi, immediately in Jerusalem) he believes himself not fully bound by that empire. He will bear witness to the resurrection before the empire, but he believes it to be under the higher authority of God, to which it must some day answer. He will treat it with respect, he will obey when doing so will not conflict with his higher Lord, but the empire itself does not possess the foundation of his identity.

Paul will also in this scene navigate between respecting the offices and institutions of his ethnic group and religious tradition, without being bound to them. He will critique Ananias as an Old Testament prophet would critique a corrupt shepherd who fails to correctly tend to the flock of the Lord. He is a “white washed wall” because he might appear substantial behind the title, the position, the money and the symbols of power and authority but inside he is crumbling, dirty weakness.

Seeking Lost Pharisees

Why does Paul throw the religious conflict bomb of the resurrection into the proceedings? Because for Paul, this is the governing event of his world.

Mookie daily has governing events in his world. Every meal is a governing event because his life is simply his biological life. This can be forgiven for a dog, but you and I were made for something larger.

The governing events in Osama Bin Laden’s life were the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the quartering of US troops in Saudi Arabia. These for him galvanized his world and set him off on a quest that would result in the killing of thousands of men, women and children who were non-combatants in the war he imagined. It would end in his being killed by US special forces in his bedroom.

For Paul the governing event in his life was the appearance of the risen Jesus of Nazareth. While the Pharisees certainly got rough treatment from Jesus of his seeming disregard to their culture war against the Romans, in time Jesus’ resurrection would bring many of them to make more and more sense of his person and his mission.

There is a subtle but strange migration in the book of Acts where increasingly the people who wanted Jesus dead begin to come around to him through the work of the apostles. Now Paul wants to continue the process of them coming to Jesus while also helping to remove the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile.

The irony of these proceedings is that in fact Roman collaborators like the chief priests and the aristocracy would have had less objection to Gentiles while Pharisees would have been more reactive. Now Paul, leverages the resurrection to, at least for the moment, put the Pharisees back on his side and hopefully open them up just a bit more to the idea that Jesus is Lord because he was raised from the dead.

“You Will Be My Witnesses”

Paul’s mission is not Mooki’s mission, to save his skin or the life of his pack. Paul’s mission is not Osama Bin Laden’s mission, to have all the world ruled by regimes like the Taliban. Paul’s mission is that the world recognize the resurrection of Jesus and the good news that brings to the planet, and he is fully at home in using these hearings to bring about that witness. In fact these hearings will be a vehicle by which Paul will be able to work his way up the judicial ladder all the way to the emperor.

We would like to imagine that this will culminate in dreamy, teary eyed scenes of capitulation by Paul’s adversaries. Just like we saw before the mob at the temple, just like we saw at the foot of Jesus’ cross, so also we will see before the Sanhedrin here. The kingdom mostly doesn’t come through dramatic Christian-Hollywood style show downs where Paul is vindicated. Paul’s witness will be in his suffering, and his ability to do it gladly.

This story will be moved along by a death threat against Paul. The Lysias will be frustrated in trying to understand what this conflict is about and will eventually have to send Paul to his superior for a hearing. Paul will have to be escorted out of the city by a strong contingent of soldiers because of those who seek to take his life. The subtext of the story is that God’s hand is behind the matter, that the Holy Spirit is working behind events, and Paul will in fact take his first steps in the years long process that will result in Paul being a witness of Jesus before the center of power in the Roman empire.

What in fact IS the Frame?

We see in Mooki, my little dog, a life lived directly with a frame of self-preservation of preservation of one’s pack or family. For a little dog, it’s not a bad frame. For a human being, it is unbecoming. It is a common frame, however, for people, and I think in many ways our culture is pushing us increasingly towards this reduced frame.

Osama Bin Laden of course had a much larger, more developed frame. Simply having a large, developed frame of course, doesn’t mean you have a good one, or the correct one. He certainly lived for something larger than himself, but it matters what larger reality one lives for.

Paul lived out Jesus’ words “seek first the kingdom of heaven” and he did so through his belief in the resurrection. He believed this changed the world.

What frame do you live out of? What frame do you bear witness to?

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Paul on Trial and the Meaning of Life

  1. richderuiter says:

    Thoughtful. I like the concept of a cultural framework to understand Paul’s actions. The same framework can be used to examine the differences between Jesus and the Pharisees, or even the Pharisees and the actual text of the Law, or the differences (or lack thereof) between the Church and the culture(s) in which it finds itself. Maybe it takes someone with cross-cultural experience to appreciate the subtle and insidious power of culture.

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