A Radical Conversion

Scripture Reading

Paul addressed the people in these words:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia,
but brought up in this city.
At the feet of Gamaliel I was educated strictly in our ancestral law
and was zealous for God, just as all of you are today.
I persecuted this Way to death,
binding both men and women and delivering them to prison.
Even the high priest and the whole council of elders
can testify on my behalf.
For from them I even received letters to the brothers
and set out for Damascus to bring back to Jerusalem
in chains for punishment those there as well.

“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus,
about noon a great light from the sky suddenly shone around me.
I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’
And he said to me,
‘I am Jesus the Nazorean whom you are persecuting.’
My companions saw the light
but did not hear the voice of the one who spoke to me.
I asked, ‘What shall I do, sir?’
The Lord answered me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus,
and there you will be told about everything
appointed for you to do.’ 
Since I could see nothing because of the brightness of that light,
I was led by hand by my companions and entered Damascus.

“A certain Ananias, a devout observer of the law,
and highly spoken of by all the Jews who lived there,
came to me and stood there and said,
‘Saul, my brother, regain your sight.’
And at that very moment I regained my sight and saw him.
Then he said,
‘The God of our ancestors designated you to know his will,
to see the Righteous One, and to hear the sound of his voice;
for you will be his witness before all
to what you have seen and heard.
Now, why delay?
Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away,
calling upon his name.'”
(Acts 22:3-16)

 

Scripture Study

22:3. Gamaliel (cf. 5:34) belonged to the school of the rabbi Hillel, which was noted for a less rigorous interpretation of the Law than that of Shammai and his disciples.

22:4. The situation described by Paul is confirmed by 1 Corinthians 15:9: “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God”; Galatians 1:13: “You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it”; Philippians 3:5–6: “as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church”; and 1 Timothy 1:13: “I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him [Christ]”.

22:6–11. Paul describes in his own words what happened on the way to Damascus (cf. 9:3–9; 26:6–16). This account differs in some ways from—but does not contradict—the two other versions of the episode, especially that of chapter 9, which is told in St Luke’s words.

Paul adds that the whole thing happened at midday (cf. 26:13), and he says that Jesus referred to himself as “Jesus of Nazareth”. He also includes the question “What shall I do, Lord?”, which is not given in chapter 9.

As far as Paul’s companions were concerned, we know that they saw the light (cf. 22:9) but did not see anyone (cf. 9:7): they did not see the glorified Jesus; they heard a voice (cf. 9:7) but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to Paul (cf. 22:9), that is, did not understand what the voice said.

22:10. Paul addresses Jesus as “Lord”, which shows that the vision has revealed to him the divinity of the One he was persecuting.

The divine voice orders him to get up from the ground and the future apostle of the Gentiles obeys immediately. The physical movement of getting up is a kind of symbol of the spiritual uplift his soul is given by God’s call. “This was the first grace, that was given to the first Adam; but more powerful than it is the grace in the second Adam. The effect of the first grace was that a man might have justice, if he willed; the second grace, therefore, is more powerful, because it affects the will itself; it makes for a strong will, a burning charity, so that by a contrary will the spirit overcomes the conflicting will of the flesh” (St Augustine, De correptione et gratia, 11, 31).

22:12–16. This account of Ananias and his role in Paul’s conversion is much shorter than that given in chapter 9 (cf. vv. 10–19). St Paul adapts it here to suit his audience (who are all Jews). He presents Jesus as the one in whom the Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled. Like Peter (cf. 3:13ff) and Stephen (cf. 7:52) he speaks of the “God of our fathers” and the “Just One” when referring to God and to Jesus respectively.[1]

Scripture Reflection

Friends, today we reflect on the significance of the conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus was an answer to this question: when through Israel, would God gather the nations and bring his rule to the whole world? When Paul met Jesus he realized that the promises of God had been fulfilled, that the expectations of the prophets had been met—but in a most unexpected and extraordinary way.

He knew from his tradition that God, through Israel, would deliver the world from sin, gather the nations, and establish peace and justice everywhere. That was the hope. The usual version of that hope was something like an avenging military/political ruler like Solomon or David, or a great law-giver/leader like Moses.

What Paul saw in Jesus was someone greater than Moses, Solomon, or David—and someone wholly unexpected. God is establishing his justice, his right order, his way, through a crucified and risen criminal, and now returned from the dead? Forgiveness, compassion, nonviolence, having no truck with the ways of death? This is God’s justice, and it judges all of the fallen powers and kingdoms of the world.

– Bishop Robert Barron

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV. 

 

 

[1] The Acts of the Apostles, The Navarre Bible (Dublin; New York: Four Courts Press; Scepter Publishers, 2005), 169–171.