As they stretched him out to flog him, Paul said to the centurion standing there, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?”
Acts 22:25 (NIV)
I am the youngest of four siblings. When you grow up with a number of siblings it doesn’t take long for a child to perceive and to learn how to manipulate the family system for one’s own gain or against a sibling rival. There is a classic story in my family that my older brother, Tim, loves to tell about my sister, Jody, who was five years his junior and the only girl in our brood.
Tim shares that he and Jody would be sitting in the living room apart from one another and minding their own respective business. Suddenly, my sister yells out at the top of her lungs, “Mom! Tim’s HITTING ME!”
Of course, mom comes running to protect the younger, female member of our family from her older, larger brother. Tim’s pleas of innocence would go unheeded and Jody would enjoy getting her brother in trouble. The two learned how to push one another’s buttons and did so throughout our growing up years.
In today’s chapter, Paul has arrived in Jerusalem after being warned by both Jesus (in a vision) and prophetic believers that he is going to suffer if he goes there. Paul was raised in Jerusalem by the esteemed religious leader, Gamaliel. He was, himself, an up-and-coming expert in Jewish law who was well-known among the religious leaders of Jerusalem. It was also well-known among the Hebrew religious elites that Paul threw it all away to become a believer of Jesus and had been stirring up trouble in Jewish synagogues throughout Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece.
In the many times I’ve journeyed through the book of Acts, I’ve always thought of Paul as simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time and having circumstance conspire against him. As I read the account today it struck me that Paul knows exactly what he is doing. Like Jesus before him, Paul is the one driving the action. Paul is playing a grand chess game of his own choosing. He knows how his opponents are going to react to his moves, and he knows in his own mind how he is going to counter their predictable response.
It’s lost on the casual 21st century reader what a huge deal it was for Paul to be a Roman citizen. He was born a citizen which means that a previous generation of his family were given Roman citizenship back in his hometown of Tarsus. Roman citizenship was a considerable luxury within the Roman Empire and many, like the commander in today’s chapter, had to pay exorbitant bribes to have their names (illegally) added to the list of citizens. As a Roman citizen Paul had certain rights, and Paul was trained as a lawyer from childhood. He knew his way around the jots and tittles of legal arguments and issues.
When Paul’s presence finally stirs up a riotous crowd he waits until the crowd has grown to large numbers to ask the Roman centurion to let him address the crowd. He waited until he had a maximum audience. Paul knew that his speech would result in a riot calling for his execution because he himself had led the same mob execution against Stephen. He knew this was going to happen just as knew that the Roman commander would be compelled to quell the riot and investigate what happened. Paul is taken into Roman custody and the local commander decides to torture this Jew for causing the riot.
What’s interesting is that Paul waited until the Centurion had him stretched out for flogging before asking, ““Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” He could have mentioned this before, but he waits until the last-minute because he knew that it was illegal to punish an accused Roman citizen before they’ve been tried in the Roman legal system. He also knew that is was illegal to flog a Roman citizen (flogging was a nasty, bloody, painful form of torture from which any Roman citizen was exempt). Paul also knew that the Centurion who flogged a Roman citizen, even by accident, could face execution. By waiting until the last moment, Paul gets a maximum reaction from his Roman captors and maximum deference (i.e. “Please, sir, don’t tell the governor I had you strung up for flogging. Can I get you anything?!“)
Paul also knows that with his appeal and claim of citizenship he has now officially entered the Roman legal system. There will be a trial and, as a Roman citizen, he has the right of appeal all the way to Caesar himself. Paul the attorney has just ensured that, even if this game he’s playing ends up with his beheading (the preferential mode of execution for a Roman citizen, instead of crucifixion for non-citizens) his story, and the Message of Jesus, is going to become a matter of public record for the entire Roman Empire. He’s just taken his witness to a whole new level.
This morning I’m thinking about the ways we humans learn to navigate our world, our systems, and our relationships. We rarely talk about the unseen ways we push buttons and leverage circumstances in our own chess games of getting siblings in trouble with mom or getting what we want from a spouse. So often these games are motivated by self-centered aims. Paul, however, is motivated to proclaim the Message of Jesus to the greatest number of people:
“I do know that it won’t be any picnic, for the Holy Spirit has let me know repeatedly and clearly that there are hard times and imprisonment ahead. But that matters little. What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God.”