Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
The story of Saul’s encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus is remarkable for many reasons. Luke explicitly states that Saul’s intense dislike for members of the Way drove him to seek the high priest’s permission to pursue and extradite them. Considering the fact that Herod alone likely had the power to extradite people, Luke’s suggestion that Saul approached the chief priest for such permission is puzzling.1Luke, however, seems much more interested in highlighting Saul’s conflict with members of the Way and his determination to pursue them. But it is the unexpected turn of events—the dramatic encounter with Jesus and its impact on Saul—that stands out in this story.
The story is often interpreted as one that signifies Saul’s conversion. Since Saul and members of the Way represented two groups within the same religious tradition in the first century, Luke likely would not have seen the turn of events on the road to Damascus as a conversion in the modern sense of the term. And Christian interpreters must be careful not to present it as a story of Christian triumph against a Jewish persecutor. But what might be the significance of Saul’s encounter with Jesus that radically changed the course of his life? Was it a conversation of a different sort? Perhaps. Let’s explore the event a bit further.
Saul’s experience in Acts 9 shares a few similarities with the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:3; 19:16-22) where Moses has his own life-changing encounter. Some of the similarities between the two stories include: appearance of fire/light, divine voice calling out the human name twice, and the humans seeking to know the name of the divine and eventually being sent by the divine. Both stories turn out to be life-changing events for Moses and Saul respectively. A key similarity in both stories, however, pertains not to anything or anyone present in the scene, but to those who are not.
In both stories, the divine voice identifies with those who have been “otherized” and subjected to suffering by those with more power. In both stories, the divine sees the suffering of the people and advocates on their behalf. In a striking moment in this story, when Saul asked to know who confronted and addressed him by name, the voice responded saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” In locating itself in and with the victims of Saul’s violence, the voice was not just expressing solidarity with them, but was also asking Saul to see the divine in those he was targeting. In identifying with the people, the voice was suggesting to Saul that inasmuch as he was targeting them, he was targeting Jesus himself. For Saul, the site of encounter with the divine transforms into a site of encounter with the humans he was persecuting. The profound encounter had a vertical dimension, but it also had a horizontal dimension.
Saul might have had theological differences with members of the Way, but it was his inability to see past those differences and relate to their humanity that engendered his hatred for them. In confronting Saul, the voice from heaven challenges him to see them through new eyes as people worthy of respect.
Saul was certain of how he wanted to see Christ and insisted that others see him the same way. Luke tells us that Saul lost his sight for three days and regained it after his encounter with Ananias. An interesting detail in the story is that Saul’s scales fell off allowing him to see again. Saul does not merely see again; rather his loss of sight and regaining it has the metaphorical significance of ceasing to see members of the Way as he had gotten accustomed to—as enemies—and learning to see them as people deserving of acceptance despite any theological and ideological differences.
Luke’s detail that Saul fell to the ground before eventually getting up again also has the metaphorical significance of a fall from his certainty that insisted that others see the world as he did. Saul, who had been breathing out threats against them, now enters into communion with them. He gains a new vision of things that allows him to see and relate to the theological other as people deserving of respect.
One can discuss at length if the story can be characterized as a conversion experience, but if there is conversion in this story, it is Saul’s new way of seeing others and relating to them. When the voice confronted Saul, it was for him a moment of realization of his own proclivity toward violence in interacting with others. Saul eventually joins the Jesus movement, but what stands out in this story is not theological or doctrinal, but the profound ways in which people can be transformed when they acknowledge the pain and damage of forcing others to see the world as they do. On that note, this was a story of Christophany that turns out to be Saul’s epiphany about relating to others with whom he disagreed.
Saul’s epiphany raises questions of how we treat, or ought to treat, those with whom we might have theological differences. It suggests that we treat them with respect not because we share a common theological or ideological space but simply because they deserve respect. This is not to suggest that any view, however extreme it might be, should be condoned, but to highlight that treating the theological other with respect entails “unseeing” them as enemies, letting our scales fall off and seeing them as fellow humans with whom we can be in conversation even as we disagree.
It is important to ask how Saul ended up relating to those he was targeting. A more important question for us might be: How do we relate to those with whom we disagree theologically or ideologically? The text tells us seeing others through new eyes and falling from our certainty before getting up again become foundations for a relationship of respect with the theological other.
- Luke Timothy Johnson, Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina. (Liturgical Press, 2006), 162.