Monday, June 13, 2011

Acts 22: When in Rome, do as the Romans do

The popular cliche "when in Rome, do as the Romans do" was coined by St. Ambrose, a fourth-century bishop of Milan. It's a catchy little tune that goes something like this: si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sicut ibi (if you were in Rome, live in the Roman way; if you are elsewhere, live as they do there). We see Paul give a virtuoso performance in Acts 22.

Centuries later God would send an Englishman (Patrick) to evangelize Ireland. Thanks to the wonders of cinematic time-travel, I know that many, many centuries from now, somewhere on the Final Frontier, Mr. Spock will refer to another influential cross-cultural leader: "the Klingons have a saying, 'only Nixon could go to China.'" Which is more unbelievable, the blue-painted druids preserving Roman Christianity in the Dark Ages, the Chinese outpacing the Americans in capitalism or the Gentiles outpacing the Jews in following the God of Israel? Truly God is great. With Him, all things are possible. Yesterday Bishop Salvatore Matano spoke to the Rice graduates about believing God for the impossible. It was a "good word" for the adults listening, too, and would have received a hearty "amen" from Paul, I am sure.

At the end of Chapter 21, Paul has returned to Jerusalem and (predictably ) is accosted by an angry Jewish mob. The Roman officer "protecting" him interrogates him about being the leader of a specific band of terrorists (literally, "dagger-men" or asassins) also mentioned by the historian Josephus. Paul is between the rock(s) of a lynch mob and the hard place of suspicious Roman soldiers.

Paul softens the Roman first by mentioning (in Greek) his Roman citizenship and his prestigious city of origin ("no ordinary city," a term also ascribed to Athens). He then settles down the mob by giving his testimony (in Aramaic) in decidedly Jewish terms:

  • "Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers" and ""was just as zealous for God as you are today...I persecuted followers of the also the high priest and all the Council can testify."

  • He refers to his Damascus protector Ananias as "a devout observer of the law;" mentions "the God of our fathers; and recalls how he "returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple."

Oh vay, what a mensch!

But the strategy falls apart when he drops the "G" word: Gentiles. Remember Jesus talking about how unbelieving Jews will receive only the Sign of Jonah? God drops a new, Gentile-evangelizing Jonah in their midst and they, well, want to throw him overboard. Sounding much like the Iranian president Ahmejinedab who wants to "erase Israel from the map," they say, "rid the earth of him, he's not fit to live!"

The Romans at first treat Paul like just another troublesome slave. Lashed between two poles with his arms and back outstretched, Paul reverts to his Greek-speaking citizen persona: "it is legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn't even been found guilty?"

Uh-oh. Some Roman has put his hobnailed boot into it now! I love the don't-look-at-me response of the centurion (sort of a high-ranking sergeant) to the Man In Charge: "what are you going to do?" What he does, of course, is let Paul go, and that right quickly.

An abbreviated version of I Cor 9:20-23 describes Paul's serious motivation for this comedy of manners, mistaken identity, and cross-cultural evangelism: "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews, to those not having the law I became like one not having the law,so as to win those not having the law. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel."

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