I suppose I could blame my own blindness with regards to Acts 9 on years of Sunday school lessons and sermons, on individualistic conversion stories modeled on Paul’s and my own tendency to neglect the political when it comes to conversion. But whatever inadequate excuse I come up with, there’s no denying that I’ve never really paid attention to the political and imperial context surrounding the story of the Damascus Road. I’m going to try to do so in this little reflection and in my sermon next Sunday.
When one reads Philippians it’s hard to miss the fact that Saul used to be a Pharisee. He spells that much out, and he considers it part of a proud pedigree that, in the wake of the self-emptying Christ, means precisely nothing. And we moderns, focused as we are with the private rather than the social, read “Pharisee” easily enough as “self-righteous person,” forgetting that recent scholarship has turned up a far richer picture of that sect in first-century Palestinian Judaism, a movement torn between pacifists, who waited on God’s unilateral movement in the world, and revolutionaries waiting for the moment when God would enlist them to strike down the false Jews and drive out the pagan occupiers. (It’s not hard to guess which faction Paul might have been part of). And when we read the Damascus Road story, the Pharasaism would almost seem to disappear, except that Saul gets letters from the high priest of the Jerusalem Temple, an institution greatly despised by the most strident Pharisees. Saul therefore is likely traveling, at the outset of Acts 9, with thugs from the very imperial network that he would have railed against as a Pharisee, continuing the trend from the life of Jesus in which old enemies become reluctant allies in order to oppose a new, powerful enemy named Jesus the Messiah.
The narrator in Acts does not spend much time on that tension, though, as “a light from heaven” soon becomes the star of the show. When Paul, who also seems to know that the light is celestial rather than demonic, hears the voice self-identify as his own victim, he must fear that one of the Jesus-followers whom he has dragged off, perhaps even Stephen, might be a prophet of God. But instead of the name of anyone Paul has personally seen off to the stoning grounds, the voice calls itself “Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Persecution, of course, is serious business for a minority religious group like the Pharisees. It’s the business of the Babylons of the world, what an Assyrian Empire does to the remnant, not what the righteous do. From what we know of Pharisees, Saul of Tarsus more than likely imagined himself as someone helping to purify that righteous remnant in preparation for the coming Messiah, and he knew that he himself would more than likely face persecution as he went about the LORD’s work. So when he himself receives the charge that he’s been persecuting the LORD, and that the LORD is not any given Jesus-follower but Jesus Himself, the blindness that follows must come to Saul, as blindness comes to Oedipus or madness to Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel, as a symbolic acting-out visibly of what was once invisible, a blindness and a madness that comes from strong action divorced from right reason. In other words, Saul has always been blind, but only in this moment does he receive the grace of losing use of his eyeballs.
I say “grace” here because, as Job knew and Plato after him, and as Augustine and Boethius would expand upon in the Christian era, punishment of the wicked does not do harm but checks those invisible plagues that harm human existence ultimately. Saul’s blindness is a kind of sight, an inescapable sign that he had been proceeding, ever since the stoning of Stephen, without eyes to see reality, and the true faithful people of God (not the false faithful he thought he was promoting) were suffering for it. The blindness of eye keeps Saul’s blindness of soul from propelling him further into the horror of persecution, and in his own helplessness God gives him opportunity to be called “brother” when Ananias finally acts as the true God’s true healer, offering Saul’s true mission to him and finding out, before Saul lives it out, the suffering that comes from Saul’s vocation.
The Revised Common Lectionary gives the preacher the option to end the Acts reading on verse 20, and it’s a fitting conclusion. Saul proclaims, after spending a bit of time with the disciples, that Jesus is “Son of God.” That phrase, if read politically and theologically, says a mouthful: Saul, who once hunted down Jesus-followers because they would hinder the coming of the King, now declares that the anointed one of Psalm 2, the one to whom YHWH says “Today I have begotten you,” is none other than the one whom Saul once persecuted. Already at this early stage Saul knows that his own story, the tale of a forgiven sinner, must be at the core of the new gospel, and the scope of God’s victory expands with every step that Saul takes. In resurrection the Messiah has triumphed over death, a message of good tidings for all who stand oppressed by death in every tribe and tongue and nation. And in forgiving Saul the Messiah has become a David much greater than the Jerusalem king who forgives the ones who have betrayed the Saul-partisans in 2 Samuel; this David will forgive even those who persecute an extended, cosmic body, who threaten the very existence of the Messiah’s body on earth.
May our own stories of forgiveness, whether we persecute or whether we fall short in other ways, sound to the glory of the risen Christ.