The following text is roughly based on a sermon preached by Pastor Marc Pernot at l’Oratoire du Louvre on Sunday 18 June 2017. It is not intended to be an authoritative translation. Biblical quotes are from the Anglicised Edition of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
Merci beaucoup à Henry qui a spontanément fait cette traduction et qui nous l'a envoyée !
This text presents to us the final adventure of the apostle Paul recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. What we find here is very different from the other recorded events regarding Paul’s ministry, even to the point where there seem to be some significant contradictions:
So why is it that Luke, the author of Luke’s Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles, has concluded his account of the adventures of Paul by presenting us with such a bizarre episode? In my opinion there are several reasons, each full of wisdom applicable to our own lives. These reasons also provide us with some ideas about how we can approach our reading of the writings of Luke.
Before we consider these reasons though, we must understand a bit of the context of this text. Luke is a Greek Doctor who is knowledgeable of Greek literature (although, in ancient culture, it wasn’t even necessary to be particularly cultivated to know the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (which date from the eighth century BC)). So this literary monument which is The Odyssey would have been known to all Greek speakers and thus in particular the people Luke is addressing through his writings. They would have known passages from the Odyssey by heart and therefore everyone encountering Luke’s texts would have immediately understood that this final episode in the adventures of Paul is an allusion to one of the major events in the life of Odysseus described in the Odyssey. This episode may have been even more well-known because it was announced in advance by Jupiter as follows:
Odyssey Book 5:
"Mercury, you are our messenger, go therefore and tell Calypso we have decreed that poor Odysseus is to return home. He is to be convoyed neither by gods nor men, but after a perilous voyage of twenty days upon a raft he is to reach fertile Scheria, the land of the Phaeacians, who are near of kin to the gods, and will honour him as though he were one of ourselves. They will send him in a ship to his own country, and will give him more bronze and gold and raiment than he would have brought back from Troy, if he had had had all his prize money and had got home without disaster.”
The parallels with our text from Acts are numerous:
So we have many parallels between these two episodes and, in the original Greek, many of the same words and expressions are employed. This leads us to think that Luke has not simply been inspired by the Odyssey, but actually intends his readers to recognise the similarities.
Why would Luke do this?
In this final episode of his book, Luke gives us the key to the interpretation of his text. Luke invites us, by making Paul into a new Odysseus, to read the journeys of Paul in the same way that the ancient Greeks read The Odyssey, which is to say as an allegory for our own existence and as a call to live our own lives heroically.
Luke was a close companion and friend of Paul. Thus, he speaks of a person who is real and concrete for him. His descriptions of the voyages of Paul could therefore pass as historical accounts, especially those that are recalled in the first person. We can read the text like this of course but Luke invites us to consider the text in a different way. In the end, he tells us with this allusion to The Odyssey, the aim of my writing is not to speak to you about Paul as such, even if he is a friend, but rather through him to invite you to live more fervently.
So the adventures of Paul are those of our own existence, the shipwrecks are those of our own lives, the miracles speak of what we ourselves can live, the vipers overcome by faith are those of our own temptations. The heroism of Paul in accomplishing his vocation, like Odysseus in The Odyssey, speaks of us as valiant heroes. These texts speak of the courage to move forwards animated by what we believe, in Paul’s case Christ and in Odysseus’s the desire to return home. Paul and Odysseus will not be stopped in their missions, not by trials, nor by temptations, nor by pleasures. Odysseus even refuses immortality in order to continue his journey towards his goal and so these accounts sing of the beauty of life in the world.
Luke therefore dares to allow Greek culture and even mythology into his testimony. This fact alone is revealing. The Gospel, the ‘good news,’ announces something new and calls us to turn radically towards God and to be inspired and transformed in everything by him. But, in citing The Odyssey, Luke shows us that turning towards God does not imply a turning away from the world and from our culture. We can read the Bible and live as Christians while reading novels and philosophy, listening to Rock (or Classical) music, studying Zen Buddhism etc. In all these things we can find resources to nurture our reflection, our sensibility and even our faith.
The Christian faith does not ask us to exit the world but to love it, to live differently under the inspiration of the spirit of God. Obviously the fact that Luke cites The Odyssey does not imply that he would subscribe to Greek theology but it does say that he does not regard the tradition with suspicion and mistrust.
Like the ‘barbarians’ of the island, many people in antiquity believed that unfortunate chance events in our lives were punishments and rebukes from the Gods (and this is what they meant when they spoke of ‘justice’). Luke knows well that the God of Jesus Christ operates with a different logic, because God is love and wants the best for every person, even for sinners as he wants to save them in the way that a Doctor wishes to heal the sick.
Drawing similarities between Paul and Odysseus is also a way of giving Paul some of the status of a myth, an ideal that we might attempt to actualise in this complex world. This is useful because the Gospel is often radical along with the words of Paul. For example, when he says that, for him, “to live is Christ”, surely he is not saying that anything that is not Christ is dead? Wouldn’t this be absurd?
Luke is certainly in agreement in saying that Christ is essential in his life and in his way of thinking of God, in his hope in God and in his desire to do good things in the world around him. All of his account of the Gospel and of his book of Acts is a way of calling us to live like this. But this final chapter, while not reducing this vision, gives a way of approaching it. It invites us to live it as an inspiration and not as a negation.
All this explains why this final episode is a very useful complement for the rest of the book.
The Pagans Can Be Good Too
To live is Christ, but Luke shows us that pagans and barbarians can be good and even live by grace. This begins with the Roman Centurion who saves Paul from drowning, followed by the simple inhabitants who show a surprising goodwill by a simple philanthropy and then by the generous King of the island.
This breaks, or rather should break, all forms of fundamentalism. No, there isn’t a world out there full of damned sinners and an inner circle of Christians who are born of the Spirit and therefore saved. As Jesus said to the pagan centurion, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9). John also says that “everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…for God is love” (1 John 4:8). before remarking that there are people who claim to love God without loving their brothers and sisters.
The event of the snake biting Paul suggests something similar. Following the symbolism in the Bible, the hand evokes our creative action and the snake evokes temptation. So the text suggests that Paul was tempted to act in an egotistical fashion. The diagnosis of the barbarians is therefore completely logical, he should proceed to swell up and then drop dead, as this is certainly the effect of egotism on us. But, by faith, by prayer and even the example of these excellent ‘barbarians,’
Paul is stronger than the temptation. What was the temptation? Perhaps to take advantage of this adventure to escape the hands of the centurion and to hide himself on one of the thousands of Mediterranean islands. But the specific temptation is not important. The point is that the pagans can be models of kindness and that the heroes of the faith can be tempted to compromise.
We all have a bit of the murderer and a bit of the divine about us, as these pagans remark in speaking of Paul. It’s clearly a folly to take him to be a God, but it’s not completely false because God gives us his spirit and the power to do good. This text invites us to accept and assume our own divinity (relative but certainly real) and to recognise that something of the perfection of God can inspire even the most pagan among us.
Life is a path, like that of Odysseus and Paul, where each of us is called to advance heroically (in the right direction, if possible).
But (having said all that!) these heroes can take holidays.
Three Months of Hibernation
Each episode of the Acts of the Apostles recalls the race of an apostle, inspired by faith, to accomplish his vocation. As Paul says, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12)
But, in this curious episode, we see Paul eating and drinking, warming up, taking advantage of friendly hospitality. Occasionally he lends a hand to his hosts but he has put his apostolic vocation to one side.
Jesus as well, particularly in the Gospel according to Luke, takes time to pray alone. But this is always presented as a useful and productive time. This is a Sabbath for Jesus, even if not on a Saturday or Sunday morning, a time of inspiration in preparation to serve.
But here, what does Paul do? The text symbolises some breathing space in the life of the believer, between contemplation and action. It’s the same with the earth, there’s a time for sowing and a time for reaping, but the earth also needs fallowing sometimes.
It’s sometimes wise, useful and right to do nothing. In this episode, the text provides a counterweight to the rest of the book, humanising things a little. But, in doing nothing, haven’t we simply succumbed to the bite of the snake of our temptation to loaf about? Sometimes the temptation is actually the inverse, towards over activity and a tendency to feel that we exist only when doing something.
The desire to do nothing is sometimes just and good and should be followed in the knowledge of the God’s benediction (but not always).
So, a just need or a wicked temptation?
May help divine be with us all.
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