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Sympathy for Saul?

It’s a dramatic story.

A villain struck down by a flash of light. Jesus’ disembodied voice calling him out. We tend to assume that Saul is the bad guy in the story. But is he? It’s important to remember that Saul sees himself as the good guy trying to protect the faith. Saul loves God and wants to stamp out anything that, in his view, dishonors God. In this case, that means the Jews in the movement around Jesus.

God’s Champion

When he breathes “threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (verse 1) Saul is God’s champion going after “bad Jews.” He sees Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith needing rescue from their error. He asks for letters to the synagogues in Damascus that will give him authority to conduct his policing there, to clean up his own faith community and rid it of the straying, unrighteous ones. As far as he is concerned, this is not a matter of going after people just to persecute them, but rather a correction of “Jews gone bad.”

Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does much harm as he is trying to do good.

We must be careful, then, in how we portray Saul. Rather than portraying him as a persecutor, we might see him as a committed son of the covenant, someone trying to do the right thing in order to strengthen the people of God.

Narrow or Expand?

In this sympathetic reading then, we might hunch that Saul is shocked not only by the flashing light, but by the accusation of persecution, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (verse 4) We might imagine Saul can hardly believe his ears, thinking, “Who? Me? A persecutor?” This is not Saul’s story about himself.

His one-track focus on righteousness narrows rather than expands his vision of what God is up to. He is so convinced of the error of others that he cannot see the new thing God is doing in Jesus Christ and mis-reads it completely.

Saul’s blindness can help us see the ways our religious commitments, however righteous, can be obstructions. How do our religious (or political or ideological or social) commitments keep us from seeing the new thing God is up to? How do we narrow rather than expand God’s mission in the world? What, in our good intentions, do we mis-read completely?

At both ends of the ideological spectrum, Christian progressives as well as Christian conservatives look to purge their ranks of any who step even slightly out of line. The story each side tells about themselves is that they are holding firm to sacred values. No one thinks of themselves as a persecutor in the stories we tell ourselves about our own commitments. We would be shocked to hear Jesus say to us, “Why do you persecute me?”

On this Sunday before Pentecost, to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Holy Spirit to expand, not narrow, the vision of what God is up to far beyond ourselves, we might pause to examine our blind spots, often tied to our deepest commitments.

It’s also an opportunity to see our own reactivity against those with whom we disagree. Commentaries on Luke 9 and 10 (June 30 and July 7) continue the theme of reactivity.

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