Lectionary Commentaries for June 6, 2010
Second Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 7:11-17

Sarah Henrich

Luke’s gospel is like a treasure chest of passages: one great episode after another, each intrinsically interesting and each a carefully placed part of Luke’s greater narrative.

On this second Sunday after Pentecost, the lectionary moves us into the second of a distinct pair of carefully positioned stories. Let me explain.

In the American political system, the time between the election of a president in November and the president’s inauguration in January is very busy. There are intensive briefings, the choosing of a cabinet, and finding the right words to convey a vision for the next four years. Staging the delivery of that vision happens on inauguration day with visual powers, music, poetry, prayer, promise, and the inaugural address. By the end of Luke’s lengthy chapter six, Jesus has “chosen his cabinet,” and staged and delivered his inaugural address. Or better, he has shown and described the inauguration of God’s reign.

The end of the Sermon on the Plain marks the beginning of an intensely public ministry in which that reign becomes visible. In Luke 7:1-11 and again in 11-17, Jesus harks back to his hometown sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-27) in which he challenged his initially approving family and friends with a reminder that God works good among those who are not faithful to God, even to those who oppress God’s people. He mentions the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian general whose lives were saved by God through the prophets Elijah and Elisha. As Jesus tells the story, both Elijah and Elisha served these non-Jews in part because they were “prophets not accepted in their own land.” More importantly, such care for non-Jews is a powerful (and in Nazareth radically unappreciated) illustration of God’s love for all God’s creatures.

In Luke 7, we return to themes of how God’s prophets, those bearing God’s active word into the world, reach out to heal and save. (Note that the Greek word sozo is translated into English as either “heal” or “save.” There is no distinction made in the Greek.) Jesus goes to Capernaum, a town in which there was some Roman presence. There he heals the slave of a foreign military man (comparable to Naaman). In our passage, he will raise from death the only son of a widowed mother, her sole support (comparable to the widow of Zarephath).

When he accomplishes these two miracles, Jesus establishes his credibility, his continuity, and his identity.

  • Credibility is established in the very examples of God’s action of which Jesus spoke in Nazareth as they are enacted immediately in his own ministry. Jesus understood God correctly. He was empowered to act as he had foreseen God would act. God’s reign is one in which weeping is turned to laughing (Luke 6:21), the poor receive the kingdom of God (6:20), one does good to enemies (6:35), and shows mercy to them (6:36). All these things will happen in Luke 7:1-17.
  • Continuity is established when we see, right along with those in Capernaum, that God’s purpose continues to be that of healing and saving without discrimination among peoples. As God worked in Elijah and Elisha, so God works in Jesus, as it was promised in Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. (Compare, e.g., Luke 7:1-10, Luke 4:27, and 2 Kings 5:1-19).
  • Identity is established by the acclamation of the crowds who truly get who Jesus is. In Luke 7:16-17, the people are in fear and excitement as they proclaim that “A great prophet has arisen among us” and “the Lord has visited his people.” The crowd may not be fully cognizant of who Jesus is, but they are deeply correct in two ways.
           o They recognize that Jesus is called and
             empowered by God who is “among” them.
           o They recognize that Jesus is, at the least,
             a man called from obscurity to do the work 
             of God, the work of healing and saving,
             even of non-Jews.

I have gotten ahead of myself with the points listed above. The credibility, continuity, and identity of Jesus are recognized only after the raising of the widow’s son. Let us look at the particular story in Luke 7:11-17. The story is unique to Luke.

First, it is worth noting that Jesus goes to Nain in the company of his disciples (not referring only to the twelve) and a great crowd. Luke provides many witnesses, including a large number of persons who have seen the miracle at Capernaum and will see the miracle in Nain.

Next, we see that a rather large crowd also follows the son’s bier from the city, so there are local people who will witness this event.

It is made very clear that this woman will now have no means of economic support: both her husband and her only son are dead. The woman is bereft not only of a son, but of any means to sustain her own life. Compare here the words and grief of this widow’s prototype in I Kings 17:17-24.

When the two groups meet at the city gate, we hear that “The Lord” is moved with compassion. This is the first time that Luke has used the word “Lord” in relation to Jesus. He is at his most “lordly” as one who shows mercy. This is a very powerful message indeed. Compassion is firmly connected with mercy in the Septuagint version of Proverbs 17:5. Compassion describes the reaction of the Samaritan in Luke 10:33 and the father in 15:20.  Both of these parables are unique to Luke, suggesting the high importance of compassion and mercy as qualities of the Lord and of his disciples.

Jesus raises the son from the dead. This event is not seen as a singular occurrence, but is a sign that God is “among his people” in Jesus, highlighted by Jesus in Luke 7:22.

In preparing a sermon on this story, much will depend on the way that the earlier story (Luke 7:1-10) was handled. What connections can the preacher make to show that this is a deliberate pairing of stories that help us to see the truth of the crowd’s acclamation: Jesus is indeed a great prophet; he is in continuity with the prophets of old in bringing God’s great gifts and mercy to surprising (and surprised!) recipients; the Lord is truly among his people.

Yet, this story deserves its own care, especially as we move into the season in which God’s people considers our discipleship. We might, for instance, consider why the Lord is moved to compassion in this story. The reality of widows in the ancient world is life-threatening at worst, miserable most of the time. A concern for assisting widows throughout the Bible stems from their dire need. One might ask questions about dire need and compassion for present disciples.

What actions, what relief, might lead folks to recognize that God is visiting God’s people? In this story, unlike the preceding one, the woman is a small-town resident, powerless, and without an advocate. Yet, Jesus “sees” her. Many stories in Luke’s gospel, including the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, the Good Samaritan, and even Zacchaeus, turn on the ability and willingness of the Lord (and his disciples) to “see” those who are often invisible. “Seeing” people into our own reality and enacting the mercy that stems from such sight is surely part of the call of those who call Jesus Lord (Luke 6:46-49).

Notice that this story does not turn on the presence or absence of faith. Save that theme for another day. Jesus sees, is moved to compassion and acts, not allowing even death to stop him. How does such a Lord lead us, members of the great crowds and/or the group of disciples?

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:17-24

Amy Erickson

The wheels almost come off the wagon of the bold narrative known as the Elijah cycle, when the boy dies unexpectedly.

What saves the day is God’s surprising willingness to respond to human protest and do something unprecedented.

In the first two episodes of 1 Kings 17 (verses 1-7 and verses 8-16), things go strictly according to plan. In the first scene, after Elijah prophesies to Ahab that there will be no rain “except by my word” (17:1), God promises to provide for Elijah, using ravens and a wadi (verses 3-4). Ravens promptly and regularly appear with food and a wadi provides water (verses 5-6).

The second scene (verses 8-16) begins when the Lord tells Elijah to go and live in Zarephath, where God has commanded a widow to feed him (17:8). The widow says she had no food, but Elijah proclaims that her oil and her meal will not fail (verse 14). Again as predicted, the oil and meal containers replenish daily (verse 16).

Suddenly in verse 17, the opening of the third scene, it appears that things do not go according to plan. The widow’s son falls ill. There is no breath in him. It looks as if the boy has been saved from starvation only to die of a severe illness. Further, there is no word from the Lord. There is no explanation for the boy’s illness nor is there any authoritative word on how this event figures into God’s plan. This unexpected turn leaves both the widow and Elijah himself searching for an explanation.

The widow’s reaction is to turn on Elijah. What kind of “man of God” saves a mother and son from starvation only to allow the son to die of illness? As a mother myself, dying with my child seems a far kinder fate than living to watch my child die. In her grief, the widow says to Elijah, “What do you have against me, O man of God?”

I wonder if she says “man of God” with sarcasm dripping from her lips. If her son dies, then Elijah and his god, in spite of all this miraculous oil generation, are powerless. Or perhaps she thinks Elijah is powerful, a man of a cruel God. Perhaps this trick with the bottomless oil jug was part of a terrible set-up — in which she is given hope only to have it torn away — designed to punish her mercilessly for her sins.

Elijah seems shocked by this turn of events as well, for Elijah does not say, “Do not worry, widow — it is all part of the plan.” Or “God would not do such a thing.” He simply says, “Give me the boy.” Then Elijah takes the boy and steps into the upper room to have a private word with the deity. Behind closed doors, he protests, “What are you doing, God? You bring me to stay with this widow who has nothing and make me rely on her hospitality; and then you thank her by killing her son?”

Elijah is angry. God’s ways may be mysterious, but he puts his foot down here. He does not simply reiterate or obey God’s words as he has up until now. Instead of waiting and listening for God’s response, the all-powerful divine word, he performs what appears to be some sort of sympathetic magic, “stretching himself on the child three times.” Then he boldly commands God to “let this child’s life come into him again” (verse 21). NRSV translates this in a way that softens Elijah’s command to God with “let;” however, we could just as legitimately translate: “YHWH, my god, return this child’s life into him!” Elijah’s off-the-cuff, completely unplanned action works. God responds. The boy revives.

In the context of this narrative, I expect a recovery of sorts. I expect a divine answer — or at least a narrator’s commentary — that communicates, somehow, that this resurrection miracle was part of God’s plan from the beginning. God thought this would be a great way to show the world that God is not only more powerful than Baal but more powerful than death.

But this is not where the text goes. Instead of tying up the loose ends, we hear that the boy is saved because “God listened to the voice of Elijah” (verse 22). This is surprising because on the surface the story of Elijah seems to be about the power of God’s word. It is a story about getting people to listen to God’s voice. Yet, at this pivotal moment in the narrative, the tide turns because God listened to Elijah’s voice.

The boy’s breath returns to him because God recognizes the truth in Elijah’s protest. In turn, God does something God has never done in the Hebrew Bible (and will only do again through Elisha). God undoes death. Scholars argue about whether the boy was really dead or just close to death. I think that is because the text is not sure either. The Bible is in uncharted territory at this point. The notion of a resurrection is an unheard of experience. The writers are hesitant because they are trying to describe, tentatively and cautiously, something unprecedented.

In this moment of crisis, in response to the truth in Elijah’s words, God mobilizes the power of life and does something God has never done before. God attends to this seemingly small thing — the death of a poor boy — with an enormous act of reversal. God pulls a resurrection out of a hat.

When the widow sees her son revived in Elijah’s arms, she proclaims, “You are a man of God…. the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (verse 24). Elijah does not argue, but the reader knows that while her interpretation may be accurate, it does not capture what happened in the upper chamber. The boy’s life returns because God recognized that the word of Elijah was truth.

Even when Elijah protests against God, his word expresses God’s truth. Amazingly, God recognizes it too. Perhaps truth is not just the word of God delivered from on high. Because at least in this narrative, truth emerges out of a dialogue between God and humanity.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16

Nancy deClaissé-Walford

Chapter 17 of 1 Kings begins a series of stories about the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha.

In these stories, the two prophets interact with the rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel (notably Ahab, Jezebel, and Jehu) and with common folk. At the beginning of chapter 17, the reader is rather abruptly introduced to Elijah the Tishbite, when read that he says to King Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1). God then tells Elijah to go and hide east of the Jordan River and promises that ravens will feed him and a wadi will provide water (17:2-6). When the drought becomes severe and the wadi dries up, God sends Elijah to Zarephath (17:7-8).

Thus begins the lectionary reading. God tells Elijah to go and live in the Sidonian city of Zarephath, where a widow will provide him with food and water. When Elijah arrives in the city, he meets a widow and asks her for some water and bread. She protests, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing . . .” But Elijah promises in the name of the God of Israel that the widow will be well-provided for until the drought comes to an end.

This story and many of the stories about Elijah and Elisha that are included in the book of Kings is enigmatic and puzzling on a number of levels. Questions this canonical critic cannot help but ask are, “Why was this story included in the book of Kings, and why in this particular place in the book?” What does it tell us about the prophets of God, particularly Elijah; what does it tell us about the nature of God, particularly in this pivotal time in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel; and, perhaps most importantly, what message can this story convey to folk in the twenty-first century? Let’s walk into the story and listen carefully to the voices and pay close attention to the actions of the characters.

We begin with God. We presume, although the text does not tell us so, that God commands Elijah to confront Ahab with news of an impending drought (17:1). God then sends Elijah into hiding for three years (18:1). Elijah is to go to the east of Jordan River, and God promises to feed him and provide water. But “after a while” (17:7), the water dries up and God sends Elijah to live with a widow in a town in Sidon.

God must have “called” Elijah in some way or another to the rather bold task set before him–announcing the drought to Ahab. Then, God tells Elijah to flee, promising provision from two sources–ravens (17:7-6) and a widow (17:8). With God’s help, Elijah is able to elude Ahab after delivering the news of the drought to him. Elude, yes, for we read in 1 Kings 18:10 that “there is no nation or kingdom to which [Ahab] has not sent to seek [Elijah].” During his time of hiding, God provided for Elijah from two very unlikely sources. Ravens are included in listings of “unclean” birds in Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14 and are birds of prey according to Job 38:41, Proverbs 30:17, and Isaiah 34:11. Widows are, in the Old Testament, included among those who are less able to care for themselves–the widows, the orphans, and the strangers (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14, Job 22:9, Psalm 68:5, and Isaiah 9:17). God’s ways are not the ways of humanity; God can and often does use “the least of these” to accomplish God’s good end.

Next, we examine Elijah. As stated above, we have no record of his call to a life of prophecy. His first action in the text of 1 Kings is to speak to Ahab in 17:1. He then flees at God’s command, but we read of no conversation with God about the command. Nor do we ever hear Elijah’s voice while he is east of the Jordan, being fed by the ravens and provided with water from the wadi. Elijah remains silent when God instructs him to go to Zarephath in verse 8. Only after he arrives in the city do we again hear his voice.  At God’s behest, he asks a widow for water and morsel of bread (verses 10-11). When she protests, Elijah assures her “by the Lord the God of Israel” that she will be provided for (verse 14).

Elijah is part of a rich prophetic tradition in Israel, part of a group who followed the call of God despite fear, without regard for personal gain, and against all odds–sometimes being bold to speak and sometimes quietly trusting in God’s provision and care. What a life and what a model for our own lives.

Finally, we examine the widow of Zarephath. She lives in a thriving trade center on the coast of Syria in the province of Sidon, but her life is one of desperate poverty. Without a husband or adult son to provide for her, she must scrape out whatever living is possible. Thus we meet her “gathering sticks” (17:10). Imagine her reaction when a traveler–a stranger–asks her for water and “a morsel of bread” (17:10-11). But was he a total stranger? Towns in the ancient Near East were small; everyone knew everyone else. Word of Elijah’s coming would have reached the town long before he did–he was traveling a great distance from east of the Jordan to Sidon. The widow’s response to Elijah’s request suggests that she knew something of who he was: “As the Lord your God lives . . .” (compare with Elijah’s words to Ahab in 17:1).

The widow who trusts Elijah and his God comes from the same province (Sidon) as Jezebel, the wife of Ahab. The widow believes that the God of Elijah can provide for her and her son based merely on the words Elijah speaks to her. Jezebel refused to believe in the power of the God of Elijah even after hearing about the spectacular events that took place on Mt. Carmel (1  Kings 18:20-46). 

Thus, a God who calls and provides for; a prophet who quietly and boldly obeys; and a marginalized woman who takes a risk on this god of Israel.


Commentary on Psalm 30

Carolyn J. Sharp

Psalm 30 frames the struggles of the life of faith within a glorious edifice: the Jerusalem Temple, a powerful cultural icon that “narrates” the faith of the believing community, the enduring presence of God, and the inviolability of God’s promises to Israel.

The psalm is ascribed to David, but it is also designated for the dedication of the Temple. Since the dedication of the first Temple took place under Solomon (1 Kings 8:63), in view here must be either the dedication of the second Temple in 515 B.C.E. (Ezra 6:16) or its rededication in the Maccabean era (1 Maccabees 4).

The complexity of the superscription invites us to hear the psalm as a prophetic reflection on the fortunes of God’s people from the early monarchy through the Persian period or even later. “Temple” becomes a richly layered symbol for the participation of the faithful in worship through the centuries. In the sweeping historical perspective constructed by the superscription, the Temple with its liturgical rhythms becomes the spiritual edifice constructed by those who sing God’s praises in every generation.

The psalmist begins with a shout of praise: God has drawn him up, healed him, and restored his life! The psalmist names his experience of healing using allusions to mythic depths, hinting at the spiritual deeps from which God has drawn him up (verse 1) and referring explicitly to Sheol and the Pit (verse 3), tropes for the spiritually inert arena of dusty darkness that awaits the dead. A chiastic structure with healing at its center (verse 2) renders transparent the veil between this life, with its pragmatic challenges of sickness and enmity, and the underworld that exists outside of human time. The mythic places of chaos and meaninglessness press on every side, threatening not only those who have already expired but those who seek to flourish in the present moment.

The psalmist breaks off his narrative to exhort the gathered community to praise the LORD (verse 4). Implicitly, we are invited to join the ranks of God’s seasoned “faithful ones.” The basis for praise? Experiences of divine punishment are only fleeting, whereas God’s favor lasts “for a lifetime.” The Hebrew phrasing here may be read in a theologically profound way: “a moment” is contrasted not with “length of days” or “all the days of my life” or another such commonplace expression of time, but with life itself (chayyim; compare Psalm 36:9 and 42:2.1  Transient pain is answered by God’s eternal grace.

The following lines feint toward the continued establishment of the one who praises God for divine favor: “I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’ By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain.” But the confidence of the psalmist is decimated by two startling words in the Hebrew: histarta paneka, “You hid your face.” All his strong talk is unraveled in a moment of abandonment! We are undone as well, for we trusted this narratorial voice.

The psalmist had not been boasting in any untoward way; he had rightly credited God’s “favor” as the means by which he had been caused to prosper. Surprised by his experience of abandonment, we find ourselves standing with the psalmist in that ragged liminal moment in which praise shades over into mourning. With his remembrance of having been left by God, the psalmist not only subverts false confidence. He renders poignant–and fragile–the shouts of praise that still echo in the sanctuary.

We are compelled to face the terrifying absence of God in the very midst of our singing. The psalmist challenges God with a barrage of rhetorical questions and impassioned pleas (verses 9-10). But this, too, is faith, for the psalmist’s anguished “Hear, O LORD!” (shema Adonai) evokes the majestic Shema Yisrael that perpetually reestablishes the covenant relationship between God and people (Deuteronomy 6:4).

We could try to dismiss the psalmist’s cries as irrelevant now, in the present moment of healing. But because of the brilliant way in which the psalm weaves together past and present, these sharp challenges to God remain forceful. Their traces cannot be silenced even in a sanctuary resounding with praise. The psalm may move gracefully into joy once again (verses 11-12), but we are left with trauma as an insistent memory just beneath the surface of our recovery.

Psalm 30 inscribes holy space in two temporal dimensions. One dimension is the contested space of historical time lived in God’s presence. We are drawn into the drama of the life of the believer with its doubts and joys, its anger and trust, its barely-suppressed fear of enemies. But another temporal dimension unfolds as well: the sacred space of eternity, in which God’s favor continually heals believers and clothes them with joy. Mourning turns to dancing; sackcloth is traded for a garment of rejoicing. These are liturgical terms: we are led to perceive the “Temple,” as both literal and spiritual edifice, holding together these two dimensions of faithful living.

It is not the case that we struggle and then are healed, once and for all. That might suggest that God’s redemption is a commodity that believers could seek to manipulate liturgically. Rather, we seek God through the changeable rhythms of joyous praising and bitter wrestling. Faith is lived in a dance of mourning and rejoicing–a dance that is by turns brutal and lyrical, as the turbulent Hebrew meter of this poem might suggest. Belief means alternately challenging and submitting to One whose power to save cannot be bounded by our expectations.

In many Christian traditions, Psalm 30 is read at the Easter Vigil in all three lectionary years. The suggestion is an ancient one that this psalm speaks of God’s mercy overcoming death itself. Augustine interpreted the psalm as singing “the joy of the resurrection” (see his Exposition on the Psalms at Psalm XXX). But this psalm resists any sort of triumphalist plot-line. God is not always experienced as loving and present.

And so we preach the good news of God’s mercy while honoring the reality of the spiritual bleakness that even seasoned believers can experience. We acclaim God in times of joy and desolation alike, for we testify to an incarnate Lord who struggled with temptation in the desert and cried out his despair on the Cross. Psalm 30 is urgently necessary for preachers because it invites us into an honest ministry of accompaniment. We can proclaim God’s redemption in Christ persuasively only while walking with our beloved community through its dark and agonistic experiences of the Cross.

1Due to variant numbering in the Hebrew text, the corresponding verses in Hebrew are Psalm 36:10 and 42:3.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 1:11-24

Jaime Clark-Soles

Paul’s Authority Issues

Have you ever had issues with your pastoral authority? What is your authority based upon? Why should anyone listen to you? How can we congregants tell if your gospel is Jesus’ gospel?

Paul is in a bind in Galatia. He founded the churches in that area and then, as he was wont to do, moved on to preach the gospel elsewhere. But not long after he left some opponents arrived and cast doubt upon Paul’s apostolic pedigree and proclamation. Often referred to as “Judaizers,” these adversaries accused Paul of preaching “Christianity Lite” because Paul insisted that the Gentile Galatians did not have to become Jews to be Christian. That is, the males did not have to be circumcised and the Galatians did not have to keep kosher in order to attain the promises of the covenant. The Judaizers were insisting on circumcision, however. They further undermined Paul’s message by questioning his authority.

Let’s face it: Paul never saw the earthly Jesus. Unlike the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, he was not part of Jesus’ terrestrial in-group. What is worse, he spent a fair amount of energy trying to wipe out the church to the best of his extreme, zealous ability (a point made twice in a mere 13 verses, verse 13 and verse 23). The Greek word there for extreme is hyperbole, which we have taken over in English with, well, hyperbole.

His self-defense begins from the first verse of Galatians: “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…” Thus already he shows that his call derives directly from Jesus and God. It does not get any more serious than that, does it? None of Paul’s other letters open so defensively. In addition, Paul’s other letters move from the greeting section of the letter into what is known as the “Thanksgiving Period,” which serves three purposes: 1) to give thanks for the positive attributes of the churches being addressed; 2) philophronesis–that is, re-establishing the bonds of friendship and warm regard across the miles; and 3) to indicate the major themes of the letter (see Romans 1:8ff.; I Corinthians 1:4ff.; and Philippians 1:3ff.).

But in Galatians, notoriously, there is no Thanksgiving Period; instead Paul immediately lambastes the Galatians: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!” (1:6-9). I must admit, I find it funny that the English translations launch into the Queen’s English whenever Paul’s language gets salty in Greek. “Let that one be accursed”? More like, “Damn them!”

Just as the letter begins with his defense, so too it ends: “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body” (6:17).

Paul’s Call–Not Conversion
Paul’s call is pretty unusual. Maybe yours is too. No one saw it coming, least of all him. Paul claims to have experienced a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” The Greek is a bit obscure here: is it a revelation about (the objective genitive) Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ (the subjective genitive)? Or does Paul mean both at once?

In any case, Paul makes it abundantly clear that his call and ministry came directly from Jesus and God–not through human means and institutions. What does this mean for apostolic succession and laying on of hands and direct lines of approved authority? These are difficult and important questions. Paul does an end-run around them all. He honors his own experience and he refuses to budge in the face of human “trappings.” Now, we may agree or disagree with Paul (surely the record shows that at every turn in his ministry folks disagreed with Paul–Jews, Gentiles, Romans, and so on), but he does make us ponder our structures of authority.

Paul never speaks of his “conversion”; rather, he refers only to his “call” (Greek, kaleo), borrowing the language of the prophet Jeremiah who speaks of his own call. Paul was not “converted” from one religion to another. When he became a Christian, he believed in the same God, drew upon the same Scriptures and moral code as he did in Judaism. Paul was called into Christian Judaism rather than Pharisaic Judaism. This is quite a different experience from his Gentile converts who were, indeed, converting from one religion to another by becoming Christian. They had to be taught about the God of the matriarchs and patriarchs and introduced to the categories of covenant, messiah, Scripture, righteousness, and law.

Futhermore, we often hear testimonies of those who were living salacious, degraded lives before they heard the call of Jesus and became Christians, even pastors. Those are good stories, but they are not Paul’s story. He was doing quite well, actually, before his call. Just read Philippians 3 and you will see what I mean. In the words that I heard David Bartlett preach once in a colleague’s ordination sermon, Paul “gave up what was good for what was better.”

Paul Doesn’t Pretend to Be Something He’s Not
That Paul is on the defensive (he has a rough go of it regarding pastoral authority in many of his letters, by the way) is clear in his statement at 1:20: “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!” Clearly, someone is accusing him. But notice that Paul faces the problem with his authority head-on: “True, I didn’t hob-nob with the earthly Jesus–my opponents are correct about that. But I know and understand and devote myself to my call as I know it. Period. And I will go to the wall on that and die for it.” And he does. Martyrdom tends to give a person credibility.

He also does not deny the obvious: he did try to destroy the church, continually, habitually (this is, of course, the force of Paul’s use of the imperfect tense of the verb rather than the aorist). This presents an “image problem,” as the marketers like to call it. He readily owns the details of his former life and appears to be just as shocked as the churchly near-martyrs by his change of heart and purpose.

Paul the Maverick vs. Paul the People-Pleaser
Paul could kowtow to human beings to make straight his paths to pastoral stardom, get the cushy position, live. But he does not. He recognizes that he would make it far easier on himself if he would do so (see 1:10). But truth demands otherwise. Paul chooses truth and commitment over tenure and commendation.