Tag Archives: Roman Empire

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 1)

Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.
Acts 24:24 (NIV)

I and my team at work have had many different business engagements over the years with a number of very different companies. I’m glad to say that our team has had several on-going engagements with clients that have lasted 15, 20, and even 25 years and counting. Others engagements have been relatively small projects that lasted a week or a month. The difference between a long engagement and a short one is often dependent the level of person we’re working with within the organization.

If we’re working with the CEO and/or senior executives of a client company, we have the opportunity to positively influence the client’s entire operation along with the  health and well-being of the customer experience for decades. A middle manager, on the other hand, typically has limited means and influence. They usually bring us in for a moment in time to treat a symptom in their service delivery system.

In today’s chapter, we find Paul in the midst of a tectonic shift in his ministry. For years he has traveled the Roman Empire in Judea, Asia Minor, and Greece. He’s been among the people. He’s expanded the number of believers and followers of Jesus. He’s organized them into local groups. He’s provided for himself by keeping his day job as a maker of tents. Paul has been on a grass-roots, boots-on-the-ground, non-stop mission among the common, everyday people in the streets. Now, like Jesus before him, Paul finds himself in the justice system of the Roman Empire being accused by the leaders of the Hebrew religion who want him dead. Unlike Jesus, Paul is a citizen of Rome, and that affords him the ability to appeal his case all the way to Caesar himself.

The first trial Paul faces against the religious leadership of the Jews is before the Roman Procurator, Antonius Felix, who had authority over Judea. Felix, like many Roman regional authorities of the time, was a corrupt official with a reputation for both cruelty and debauchery. The trial, as recorded in today’s chapter, should have ended with Paul’s release. The Jewish leaders had no accusation that should have stood up in Roman court. They did not produce a single corroborating witness willing to be cross-examined, and they had no evidence. Paul’s defense was persuasive and, as a Roman citizen, he should have been released immediately. Felix, however, was in a tough spot politically.

One of the top responsibilities of Roman provincial leadership was keeping the peace. The Jewish leaders bringing charges against Paul had tremendous political and social influence, and Felix knew it. His predecessor, Ventidus Cumanus, failed to respond to a racially motivated murder of a Jew in Samaria. The result was riots and uprising. Cumanus was held responsible by Caesar and exiled. Felix wants to avoid this fate so he decides to appease the Jewish leaders by keeping Paul in prison. But the Jesus movement has been gaining popularity, as well. Tens of thousands of people had become believers and Paul is one of their leaders. So, Felix can’t just have him killed without potentially igniting a backlash.

The compromise Felix came up with was to keep Paul under a relatively comfortable house arrest within the palace. For two years Felix and his wife (the daughter of Herod Agrippa) regularly meet with Paul to have lengthy discussions. Felix, being a corrupt Roman official, is hoping Paul will offer him a bribe to let him go. Paul is on a very different mission, however. He could have easily stolen Peter’s line: “Silver and gold I don’t have, but what I have I give to you.”

This morning as I read, I thought about Paul’s situation in terms of my own experience in business. For years Paul has been working with the front-line workers of the corporate Roman Empire. Now Paul finds himself invited into the executive suite. Paul has the opportunity to influence an influencer. To convert a Roman official, to even make him aware of the Message of Jesus, could have a tremendous ripple effect throughout the Empire. Paul is fulfilling the very mission Jesus spoke of to his disciples: “On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles.” (Matt 10:18)

Convert an Ephesian shopkeeper and you change a life. Convert a Roman official and you might just change an empire (which is exactly what eventually happened two hundred years later with the Roman Emperor Constantine).

Firing a Warning Shot Across Religion’s Bow

But when [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Matthew 3:7-10

As Jesus appeared on the scene, the political landscape in the land of Palestine was a complex one. The Roman Empire occupied the territory and the occupational forces maintained law and order. Rome maintained regional civil ruler which gave the residents of the area a local authority. Herod the Great died a few years after he slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem, and his rule was divided between his sons. If you were Jewish, however, your life and religion was subject to the authority of the High Priest and religious leaders who managed the Temple in Jerusalem. It operated much like a city-state under Roman authority. The temple had its own currency (thus the need for the money changers that Jesus would throw out) and economy.

Both Rome and Herod knew that the Jewish people held allegiance to their religion above any civil ruler. They’d been living under one foreign power or another for over 500 years. Medes, Persians, Greeks, and Romans had all occupied their land. The Jewish people had no allegiance to any of them. They High Priest and religious leaders ruled their people through their intricate system of laws and held the power of salvation by cutting people off from making their sacrifices or deeming their sacrifices unacceptable. Religion had become a powerful racket.

John the Baptist was a prophet, an outsider, and a troublemaker for the status quo. People flocked to the wasteland outside of Jerusalem to hear him preach a message that resonated with those marginalized by the Righteous Racket of the Temple’s power brokers. John told people to change their hearts, to repent of their sins, and he washed them in the waters of the Jordan rather than insisting they go pay exorbitant currency exchange rates to purchase “official” temple goods for sacrifice at the Temple. In other words, the more popular he became, the more he cut into Temple profits and represented a potential for uprising that threatened the power of the Sanhedrin’s powerful syndicate.

So, the High Priest sends envoys to check out this vagabond upstart. John wastes no time. He fires a prophetic shot across their bow. One is coming who will change everything. Tectonic plates in the spiritual realm are going to shift and the Temple’s racket will be no more. The first shot in a conflict is fired which will ultimately lead those same religious racketeers to pay 30 pieces of silver for Jesus’ betrayal and they will stop at nothing until He is executed.

Yet, just like Herod the Great in yesterday’s chapter, in God’s economy those who stop at nothing to cling to power will ultimately find it slipping from their grasp. The Jesus they executed would not stay in the grave, and His followers would “turn the world upside down” within a generation. At the end of that same generation the Romans would destroy the Temple in Jerusalem, and with it they would torch all of the Jewish genealogical records. If you can’t substantiate who is from which tribe then you can’t determine who the Levites are, or who descended from Aaron and qualified as a priest. The Temple and its sacrificial system were no more.

Come gather around people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
And if your breath to you is worth saving
Then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changing

featured photo courtesy WallyG via Flickr

Contrasting Events; Contrasting Outcomes

prison2Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”
Acts 16:26-28 (NRSV)

Earlier in the book of Acts, Luke chronicled the story of Peter being held in prison by Herod. When an angel appeared to Peter and led in his miraculous escape Herod quickly executed all of the guards for letting Peter escape (Acts 12:19). Justice in the Roman Empire in those days was swift, severe, and not always just. If your job was to guard a prisoner and the prisoner escaped, the penalty was death.

It was interesting to read a contrasting story in this morning’s chapter about Paul and Silas being thrown into prison in Philippi. When a violent earthquake frees them to make a run for it, Paul and Silas choose to stay in prison. They were, in effect, saving the jailer’s life, and their unexpected act of grace leads to the jailer and his household choosing to become followers of Jesus.

I find myself pondering the differences and the outcomes of these two stories this morning. Peter followed the angel to freedom and all of the guards were executed. When given an opportunity for escape, Paul and Silas chose to stay as an act of love and grace towards the jailer. Why didn’t Peter stay as a witness to his captors?

The situations were different. Peter was instructed to leave by the angel and was under heavy guard. He was in Jerusalem and being persecuted by Herod who was a ruthless, violent, insane dictator. In contrast, Paul and Silas were in a relatively small backwater Greek town being held in jail with only one jailor being mentioned. The stakes were much lower and Paul held a trump card which he plays at the end of the chapter. He was a Roman citizen which came with it a host of privileges that were being denied him. Despite the momentary suffering of incarceration, Paul knew that he actually held an unknown advantage.

Along life’s road I have observed that the institutional church and many Jesus followers desire faith and life to be simple and one-size-fits-all. As I wander through God’s Message I am reminded time and time again that following Jesus isn’t always that simple. God through Paul was merciful to the Philippian jailer, but all of Herod’s guards were summarily executed. Where was the mercy for them? Different time. Different place. Different circumstance. Different stakes. Different outcome.

Today, I’m pondering the reality that God sometimes chooses to move in different ways in different times, places, and circumstances. My job is not to try and categorize, confine, and control what God will do, but be open to the fact that God, His intentions, and His actions are beyond my categorization, confine, and control. My job is, by faith and obedience, to continue following where I am led and let God work as He wills.

Contrasts in Corruption

Jan_Luyken's_Jesus_21._Zacchaeus._Phillip_Medhurst_Collection

A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

When Jesus entered the temple courts, he began to drive out those who were selling. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be a house of prayer’; but you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’” Luke 19:2, 45-46 (NIV)

In Jesus’ day corruption was everywhere. I realized as I read this morning that today’s chapter is bookended with a fascinating parallel. It begins with the story of Zacchaeus.

Zac was a “chief tax collector.” In the days of Roman occupation, the empire broke up territory into tax regions. The tax collectors were locals who knew their neighborhoods, local businessmen, and had first hand knowledge of where the local money was. Tax collectors had a base amount of tax that the Roman Empire demanded they raise and send to Rome. There were, no doubt, others in the regional political machine getting their cut, but beyond that the tax collectors could keep whatever they could extort from their own people. The more money they squeezed out of their neighbors the richer they became, and Zac was a very wealthy man. As a “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus would not only have extorted his own share, but he was likely getting a piece of the action from other collectors in his territory. He was a extortionist and racketeer, the first century equivalent of a local mob boss.

Contrast this with the Pharisees and religious leaders who ran the temple. They judged Zacchaeus as a traitor and a sinner and they would look down their ecclesiastical noses at the extortionist. But, the religious leaders were total hypocrites. They had a thriving racket of their own. Good Jews were required to make regular pilgrimages to the temple to make sacrifices and offerings for their sins. Jews regularly came from all over the known world to make their annual sacrifices. To take advantage of this, the Pharisees in charge of the temple minted their own currency and the priests demanded that people buy the supplies for their offerings from the approved temple merchants. Of course, the temple merchants only took temple currency, so people would have to visit the temple “money changers” to exchange their local currency at exorbitant exchange rates. At least with Zac and the money changers there was no pretense about what they did with their money. The high priest and the religious leaders were corrupt extortionists, but they cloaked their racket in pious religiosity. They used God to launder their public image and both social and religious leverage to line their own pockets.

Jesus visits Zacchaeus’ house (creating all sorts of gossip, whispers and condemnation from all the good religious people). By the end of the visit, Zac’s heart and life had changed. He agrees to give away half of his wealth and make amends with all whom he’d cheated (the list was likely to be very long).

Jesus visits the temple. Unlike the sinner, Zac, the Pharisees and religious leaders refuse to repent of their extortion and racketeering. They choose, instead, to plot to have Jesus killed. His teaching, and his driving of the money changers from the temple were a threat to their power and their income. They would have none of it. Jesus needed to be rubbed out.

God’s Message teaches that sin is common to all. Both the tax collectors and the religious leaders were infected with the same appetite for greed and power. There was no difference in their sin, only in their response to Jesus. The traitorous “sinner” Zacchaeus opens his heart to Jesus’ words and turns away from his racketeering ways. The good religious people close their hearts to Jesus’ words and sink to even lower into corruption in order to safeguard their wealth and power.

Today, I’m thinking about the contrast in these two stories. I’m aware some people think of me as a good, religious person like the Pharisees, but I don’t ever want to be like the temple leaders who played a religious game to hide their lust for wealth and power. I’m also aware that some religious people think that I am not being religious enough and I don’t tow the line on their religious standards. I am divorced, I have tats, I don’t hide my love for a pint of good beer and an occasional cigar. And, I hang out with those sketchy artists and theatre types.

I am admittedly not perfect, but I hope that, like Zacchaeus, my heart and soul will always be open to Jesus’ teachings and that my life will always be enthusiastically responsive to Spirit and Truth.

jesus_money

#CrazyTalk #BigMistakeDude

crucifixionLarge crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “…Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27 (NIV)

Because Jesus’ death on the cross was the most famous crucifixion of all time, many people today do not realize that crucifixion was actually a very common form of execution in that day. The area was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire. Even in those days it was a political hotbed and the Roman Legion was intent on using force and intimidation to control the masses.

Crucifixion catered to the Roman’s desire to create fear and humiliation among their unruly subjects. Those sentenced to be crucified were forced to publicly struggle carry their own cross outside of the town as a form of spectacle. Once there, the victim would die a slow, painful death in view of everyone. Romans Legions would often line the roads leading in and out of an occupied town with multiple crucifixion victims. It was a visible calling card telling everyone that the Romans were in charge. It was a way of reminding visitors what they could look forward to if they created trouble for the occupying Roman force.

When Jesus turned to the large crowd following Him and said “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” the message was layered with meaning. The crowd was used to seeing the victims of Rome carrying their crosses through the streets. They had all heard the screams of crucifixion victims dying in excruciating pain. They had seen the dead, twisted bodies hanging limp on the crosses that lined the highway out of town.

Jesus was riding a wave of huge popularity. His name and his message were trending like nobody’s business. He healed the sick and crippled. He fed entire throngs of hungry people. He publicly humiliated the rich and powerful religious hypocrites and took up the cause of the poor and downtrodden.

And then, He tells people they’ll have to be crucified if they wanted to follow. They’ll have to become victims of the evil Romans.

I can imagine what the crowd thought:

Be crucified? Did I hear that right? Crucified?! No more free fish sandwiches? No more free healthcare? No more entertaining stories and flash mob rallies? What are you talking about, Jesus? Are you on the side of the hated Romans now? Do you like what they are doing to our own people? Dude, I’m all for socialism and a little political anarchy, especially when there’s something in it for me. But being crucified?! Count me out!!

I can imagine what his disciples thought:

Master, what are you saying? Are you crazyYou’ve got these people literally eating out of your hand. You’re the biggest thing since Elijah. You can make history. You can rally the people against Rome! You can be king (and we’ve already drawn lots for the choicest spots on your new administration)! Why are you telling people to choose to be crucified? Are you nuts? You’re making a huge mistake!! You’ll drop in the polls. The Pharisees are going to crush you on the talk shows. This is political suicide! 

What Jesus followers did not understand about His mission is that it was never about popularity, opinion polls, earthly power, or politics. His mission was all about personal, spiritual, and eternal salvation. He knew His mission led away from the crowds and popularity to a lonely death on a cross. Even in the order of creation it is understood that the new life and hope of spring must be preceded by the long, slow death of winter.