Sunday Lesson: Paul in Malta
On most Sundays, I post a brief vignette from the life of Jesus and consider how it relates to me and to us. I don’t preach. My goal is to understand what the writer said and what the hearers heard. I leave the what it really means to others, smarter than me. It’s impossible for me to do this without some bias. I know this, and when I recognize it, address it. I don’t come from any theological position except love: I read and enjoy almost anything from the Big Three of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant theology. I label myself a Christian agnostic arguing that, in religious matters, unlike measuring, say, the weight of a hunk of Carolina Blue Granite, there is no logical way to be certain of anything. Nor do I trust my puny human brain to understand the transcendent G of the universe. I believe by faith, and not logic, and whatever I glom onto, I hold in an open hand. Loosely.
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It’s early 2022 and we are still in the throes of the Corna Virus pandemic. The omicron variant plagues the world now and appears by all measures to be more tepid than other variants. I’m guessing that the virus is learning how to live with humans as hosts. It’s no good killing us off like ebola did when it first emerged from other apes. It’s better for the virus if it learns to live with us, periodically conjuring a fever and cough in the host and then replicating by the billions.
The CDC and all the charts I look at say there’s trouble coming. Numbers are drifting down in the big cities with New York reporting just over 10,000 infections a day now. The problem, the pundits say, is in rural America. Even when numbers drift down, even if hospitalizations are a fraction of what they have been, we are unprepared. I don’t remember the city, but it was in Kansas or Oklahoma and they have only 280 beds available for Covid and no other preparations. These are often cities where vaccination rates are the lowest. It bodes ill.
I wrote this in response to friends who kept saying to me that ‘G takes care of His own.” This is true: all of us who follow the One True G have a heavenly hope for restoration and healing. But history and the scriptures are filled with stories of believers who suffer all kinds of trials. To write these people off as nominal and relying on the ignominious fact that ‘G saves those who are truly His’ reveals a nasty streak of ego and self. We all have it, of course, but G is just as famous for bringing a dose of humility as He is for saving us from the storm. Even the great Spurgeon said that most Christians could use a few weeks of illness to set their hearts on things that matter.
I wrote this somewhere around the start of the pandemic and it still fits.
Shake it off, Paul
Today, I take a turn to the life of Paul, the bulldog.
There is a religious philosophy, popular among many Christians, especially now. It’s the philosophy of the snake handler and it comes from the New Testament story of Paul in Malta.
It was rainy and cold, and Paul, always working so as not to be burdensome, is gathering sticks for a fire. A snake, a cold-blooded creature, warmed by the fire, ‘fastened itself’ to Paul’s hand.
Here’s where philosophy starts. Locals from Malta saw the snake hanging from Paul’s hand and whispered among themselves: “So, this guy escaped tossing in the sea, but God wouldn’t let him get away. DOUBTLESS, this man is a murderer.” It’s our human nature.
Paul saw the snake and shook it off into the fire. Probably to gather more wood. For Paul, it was a non-starter. But locals kept watching for his hand to plump, and for him to fall dead. He kept working while they watched and gossiped so – what else? – they decided he was a god.
We remember, too, when Jesus was tempted after forty days of fasting. The devil ‘led him to Jerusalem and set him on the parapet of the Temple’.
“If you are the Son of G,” he said to Him, “throw yourself down from here, for the scripture says,
He has given his angels orders about you, to guard you,
They will carry you in their arms
In case you trip over a stone.”
But Jesus answered him,
Do not put the Lord your God to the Test.”
- Paul was bit by the snake as a matter of course while working. He wasn’t putting himself in a position to require G to put on a show or to test G’s faithfulness. As a biologist, I can explain why a snake would strike in this situation, and it’s not a lofty notion: it’s what they do. There are times, though, in both the Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, where an action is performed precisely as a sign. There is no indication of that here. Neither Paul nor G set this circumstance in motion for a sign.
- Much like we do are wont to do, the locals in Malta measured a man’s relationship with G by his successes. It’s a common and usually wrong theme: illness, catastrophe, and in today’s case, a pandemic, equates with G’s anger and our sinfulness. Escaping the catastrophe proves that G was on our side all along, that you’re special. None of it makes sense. Were Christians killed in WWII or in Viet Nam? Are Christians sometimes killed on the freeway? Will Christians become ill with the coronavirus? They will. It has no overarching bearing on their relationship with G. This kind of thought is a special danger for believers, I think, equating G’s care for us with our physical well-being.
- Atop the temple, Jesus had a chance to prove to Satan that He was who He said he was. But, surely Satan already knew? What was to prove? It’s the ‘Did G really say…’ from Genesis 1 all over. Yet, even today, with this great history behind us, I read that Christians feel they are immune from the virus, that G will spare His own. This makes for an easy metric: get sick = an evil unbeliever. A murderer is what the Maltans said of Paul.
- Last is the New Testament urging all people – every one – to obey the governing authorities. It’s a complex issue. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was put to death by Nazis when it was discovered that he was plotting with others to kill Hitler. He considered it his Christian duty to do so. I would have probably felt the same. But Augustine said that government is a necessary evil, necessary because people are evil. It’s a tough nut to crack during perilous times.
In closing, I bring up a verse I refer to often :
You have already been told what is right
And what Yahweh wants of you.
Only this, to do what is right,
To love loyalty, and to walk humbly with your G.
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