This post covers the readings from The Acts of the Apostles for the Seventh Week of Easter, Acts 21:27 through 27:12. For a list of all the readings through the Easter season, click here.
This section of Acts continues with more of Paul’s adventures. Or, rather, more of Paul’s rabble-rousing adventures. As we study the final chapters of Acts, we read about Paul’s encounters with several powerful figures of the day. And not once, but twice, we hear Paul share his conversion experience on the Damascus Road.
Paul’s accounts don’t differ significantly from what we read earlier in Acts. He’s honest about his role in persecuting Christians and encouraging those who persecuted unto death early Christians. He recounts being struck blind on the Damascus Road and hearing the voice of Jesus ask, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” in the Hebrew language (a verse in Acts my Hebrew professor in seminary suggested God preferred language is Hebrew).
But the line that follows in Paul’s testimony in front of King Agrippa fascinates me. Paul says Jesus continues speaking, telling a blinded Paul, “It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
That particular phrase is from a play by Euripides written some 500 years before the events of Acts take place. It had become a popular Greek proverb by the time of Paul. Goads were sticks with a metal point on the end used to drive large animals like cattle and oxen. In the Ancient Near East, a farmer plowing the field would use a goad to motivate an ox who decided to stand firmly in place to move forward. The more an animal resisted the guidance by kicking against the goad, the more discomfort the goad would inflict. The word is a root from our modern use of the verb goad, as in provoking someone to elicit a reaction.
First, I love that as Paul relates the story, Jesus uses popular phrases of the day to make a point. Far too many people think God and Jesus only speak in King James English, and our prayers with them will be graded and, perhaps even answered, on our ability to speak likewise.
Here’s textual proof of exactly the opposite. Jesus speaks with us in the language we use, the words we use, and in the phrases we use. Jesus today might appear to someone persecuting those Christians striving for justice and dignity among all people by asking the persecutor of the faithful, “Why aren’t you woke?!”
Second, this proverb Jesus says to Paul has something substantial to say to us, too. Jesus loved agricultural images. Not surprising, given the culture in which he lived and moved and had his being was significantly agricultural. Just as we embrace the image of Jesus the Good Shepherd using a shepherd’s crook to guide the sheep, we can also imagine Jesus the Oxen Driver, guiding a pair of oxen yoked together forward to plow the field.
And we are the ones who need guiding to do the work Jesus has given us to do.
Our work of love in the world, serving especially the least of these, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others, and being a witness of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world is hard work. Make no mistake, living a life mostly focused on what’s best for us and letting those people deal with their own problems, keeping our Jesus talk contained to an hour on Sundays a few times a month, and being a witness to the percieved power of holding grudges and retribution is far easier. We meander wherever we want, unconcerned with the voice of Jesus asking us why we persecute him as we put our wants and desires and our own comfort above love of neighbor and enemy.
Jesus, however, will not let us meander or stay stuck forever. Gently, even sharply, we will feel the prick of the Gospel pushing us onto the Way of Christ.
Maybe, in response to this prick to our souls, we move forward to follow Jesus more closely when the sharp pang of awareness, of empathy, and of compassion unsettles us.
Or maybe we become more stubborn. We rationalize why we can’t love our enemies, why we think justice and equality should be delayed as we have yet another committee meeting or avoid doing anything that might cause controversy or be considered “unseemly” by those in power, or any of the number of reasons we would rather envelop ourselves in illusory busy-ness than do the challenging work of love in the world. And Jesus, in his persistent, loving way, keeps urging us forward, pushing us out of our illusions and explanations and excuses.
We do not, as followers of Jesus, get to stay stuck in our own images of God. We do not get to tell those crying aloud in the wilderness for justice and equality to wait. We do not get to talk about acting in love while refusing to let love act on us and change us.
And yet, too often, we say we follow Jesus and do exactly all these things. We are the oxen with fields to plow, but we stop in our tracks, refusing to move. We keep resisting any movement forward. And Jesus pokes us, prods us, and tries to move us through the voices of those who yearn for love, who cry for welcome, who ask us to see Jesus in them and help them.
And yet, we kick against Jesus’ goad of love.
Jesus, being Jesus, does not silence those voices pushing us forward into love. In fact, Jesus continues to ask us, “Why do you persecute me?” and holds a steady pressure on our selves and souls to move us out of our ruts, out of our excuses, out of our fears into the way of Jesus.
Saul realized that. He knew the only way to relieve his personal discomfort that resulted in his harassing, tormenting, and persecuting Christians was to embrace the Good News they preached. He quit kicking against the goad and began walking the Way of Jesus.
This Way, as we’ve read, was not effortless or without hardship for Paul. But it was life-giving, filled with a love that made Paul venture into cities and towns across Asia Minor preaching the Gospel. This love transformed a man who persecuted Christians into a man who propagated the faith as no other person did at the time. This love reaches into the places in our hearts where prejudice lives and wants to clear our vision so we can move forward.
As you reflect on your life of faith, can you identify times where you have been stuck, not able to see Jesus in a group of people whom Jesus loves, not wanting to shift from a firmly held position you believed to be correct? Did you experience Jesus compassionately yet firmly goad you forward? What were the circumstances? What kept you stuck, not wanting to move forward? How did Jesus’ love manifest to get you unstuck?
How are you now following Jesus on this new Way?