I always thought the people of Athens got a raw deal in Acts, but maybe not.
Acts 19 has my very favorite story – it’s very Hanna Barbera-funny, and it was the first Scripture I preached on (and technically the only one I’ve preached on, I guess). But I’m going to save 19 for another week, because tonight is not a funny-story kind of night.
Acts 17-18 continues the pattern of the second half of Acts, which is basically just a cycle of Paul finding new towns to get beat up for preaching about Jesus in. The exception, maybe the only one, now that I think of it, is Athens, which he visits in Acts 17:16-34.
Then as now, Athens is not a footnote kind of town. Thessaloniki, Berea, Corinth – those are towns we only know because they show up in the Bible. But Athens was the center of the Western universe for a while, and even though the Romans had supplanted the Greeks by this point, it still had some panache. Like London or Paris or Rome today, it may not be the geopolitical axis on which a continent spun anymore, but there was a gravitas still left from when that was the case.
As a former world power in ruins, the Athenians held on to an illusion of importance. They didn’t have political power, but they still considered themselves the home of wisdom. One of the two interesting things the writer of Acts says about the Athenians was this: they were interested in what Paul had to say “for all the citizens of Athens and the foreigners who lived there liked to spend all their time telling and hearing the latest new thing.” Novelty had replaced significance. They had lost their place as agenda-setter for the world, so they comforted themselves with being up on the latest fads and debates.
The other thing Luke says about the Athenians is this: when Paul comes to town, “he was greatly upset when he noticed how full of idols the city was.” (17:16) Now, those idols were there when Athens was still the big deal; this was not one of those things where they went astray and that’s why they lost their power. But I get where Paul is coming from: when there are a lot of things lying around that you *could* worship, it gets really hard to remember what you’re *meant* to worship. And when so many little-g gods clamor for our attention, it can be hard to break through with a message about the big-G God.
So Paul preaches and adapts the Gospel to the ears of the Athenians. Instead of citing the salvation story of Israel, Moses and David, he cites Greek philosophers and argues that the Athenians, in having a temple for a “god to be named later” (to use baseball lingo), have actually stumbled on the big-G God by accident.
Some of the Athenian elite laugh at Paul as a fool, but others say “we want to hear you speak about this again.”
Here’s where I thought the Athenians got a raw deal. Paul doesn’t come back. He leaves for Corinth. Me, I would have taken a “come back again so we can talk about it some more” as a win; I mean, in most towns, Paul got beaten up and left for dead. Getting an offer for a second meeting is a good day. It’s “so you’re saying there’s a chance.” So had I been Paul, I would have come back.
But lately, I’ve been thinking maybe I can finally see where Paul is coming from when he doesn’t wait for the Athenians to catch up.
Because when your job is to go from town to town speaking the Truth, and every time you do, you end up getting the crap beat out of you and you end up getting thrown in jail or left for dead, that has to wear you out. The people who get the message anyway, the communities that hear the Truth and buy in the first time despite the beatings, they’re probably just enough to keep you going from beating to beating. But they’re not enough to give you patience for the people who want to talk it all out. Actually, patience was never Paul’s strong suit, anyway. For him, it was always time to MOVE.
So when in Athens, Paul didn’t get beat up right away, but he also mostly got a response of, “Hmm. That’s interesting. Let’s talk about it again sometime,” maybe he knew that he didn’t have the patience to sit with those folks long enough for them to catch up. He had other places to speak the Truth. He didn’t have time for “Hmm.” He was made to MOVE.
Black people in America have been getting beat up, imprisoned and killed in city after city for a really, really, really long time, for speaking the Truth that they aren’t any “less than”, and the truth that, through both policy and practice, the history of America has been run through with an original sin of racism that says that they aren’t deserving of the same dignity as white people; even when the laws on the books get changed, the practices of the people in power don’t. Everywhere that Truth has been spoken, they’ve gotten beat like Paul got beat, they’ve gotten thrown in jail like Paul got thrown in jail, they’ve gotten executed like Paul eventually got executed. (Spoiler; sorry.) But they also find a couple more people who catch on, and hopefully that helps them keep MOVING.
So I’ve been so blessed over the last 30-35 years to find those rare saints who have endured the beatings and emerged with the patience to put up with my “Hmm. That’s interesting. Let’s talk about it again sometime. Can you send me a bibliography of stuff I can read through and think about in the meantime?”
But right now, when the litany of the dead has gotten so long, and the US military is clearing priests out of their own churches to make room for the idol that is American power, I’m beginning to realize that, yeah, our nation’s Pauls have got no time for “Hmm.” It’s time to MOVE.
The rest of us, we just have to catch up on our own.
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