Nov. 18, 2012
Background Scripture: Acts 28:1-10
Devotional Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16
The story of Paul’s shipwreck on the island of Malta is almost 2,000 years old. Yet, there are elements in this fascinating story that are relevant to the world in which we live. So, the story tells us not only about Paul and his shipmates, but us as well.
In the King James Version, reading about the reception of the shipwreck survivors by the people of Malta, we are told: “And the barbarous people showed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold” (28:2).
The stumbling-block here is the term “barbarous people,” for it produces a characterization that is not likely to have been intended by the writer. Scholar William Barclay tells us the Greek word is actually barbaroi, but for the Greeks this simply meant people who spoke a language that was unintelligible to them – quite unlike the beautiful Greek language.
The RSV and Phillips call them “natives” and other translations say “”inhabitants,” “rough islanders,” “the people of the island” and “foreign-speaking people.” Actually, even the term “natives” may suggest an uncivilized people.
Enter the snake
So what is the importance of this one Greek word? It demonstrates that all too often we judge people simply because we do not know them.
Author John M. Barry, in his recent book Roger Williams and The Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty, tells us when the English Separatists arrived on the shores of Massachusetts, they regarded the local Native Americans as barbarians – but in many instances it was the English invaders who acted barbarously.
All too often in world history people have regarded others as barbarians simply because they were different and/or spoke another language. This presumed racial superiority lies at the heart of many prejudicial ideas and attitudes.
But, although they were strangers to the locals, the inhabitants were perceived as showing “unusual kindness.” (How about your church and community? Does it show “unusual kindness” to newcomers?)
There’s an old saying, “Into every life a little rain must fall” and I’d like to add, “Into every life there’s a snake that wants to take up residence.” Everyone remembers the “serpent” of Genesis 3:1. The reptile has long served as an icon of evil and understandably, the Maltese interpreted the snake as a sign that Paul was evil, a murderer – but Paul shook off the snake and it fell into the fire. In God’s eyes the snake did not portend that Paul was evil or that evil had taken over. The snake did not “have” Paul, but the snake was nullified by Paul’s spirituality.
We, too, have the power to “shake off” the serpent that attempts to lock us in its grasp.
The early Church regarded Paul’s persecution as the sign of the evil one, but they found that God’s power is available to all of who want to shake him off.
Note also that the Maltese assumed the snake signified a judgment upon Paul: “Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live” (28:4). The term “justice” here was thought of in terms of Dike, the goddess of justice and vengeance.
Note: justice and vengeance. The locals believed the serpent’s bite was Paul’s fair punishment for the crime of which he was suspected.
Down through human history people have interpreted personal misfortune as a penalty for sin. The “friends” of Job assumed he had sinned against God, and that that was the reason for all his woes.
Sometimes, misfortune is a consequence of sin, but evil more often comes to us simply as misfortune, not penalty – and we must not assume the unfortunate are simply being punished for their sins.
It wasn’t long ago that certain presumptive Christians were asserting that New Orleans was flooded because God was punishing the city for its evil. If that were true, none of us could live safely anywhere.
The people of Malta, rough and rustic as they may have been, responded to the shipwrecked party with hospitality and kindness. It is sad that all too often people, including Christians, automatically reject strangers. I think it was the presence and spirit of Paul that caused the natives to be kind and the shipwrecked survivors to be grateful.
Theodore P. Ferris comments on this happy occasion: “It is not too much to assume, therefore, that when Paul and his two Christian friends left the island of Malta, they left a wake of happiness and spiritual joy behind them.” Across the centuries, that is not the wake some Christians have left behind.
It is said the Jews of Jerusalem fared considerably better under Moslem rule than under Christians. I have known Christians who, by their judgmental words, self-righteousness and anger, have left behind them that which is a contradiction of the good news of Jesus Christ.
Henry Drummond says: “The greatest thing we can do for our Heavenly Father is to be kind to some of his other children.” A Christian who is not kind is not a Christian.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Those with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.