For my first post as a perma-blogger at Wheat and Tares I decided to write about a topic that presents quite the challenge for me. It is challenging not because it is difficult to talk about but rather because it pushes me personally in ways that are uncomfortable for me; it challenges who I am.
To me, the apostle Paul is one of the most amazing people in all of scripture. I suppose I can relate to him in many ways. We know quite a bit about him so he is more “real” and less of a caricature, making him more accessible to me. I am amazed at the changes he made in his life as a result of his encounter with the resurrected Jesus. There is something powerful about his life and, even down through the intervening centuries, he motivates me to be a better Christian.
There is a comment Paul makes as recorded in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 and on which I would like to focus. I’m going to quote from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible (it is my preferred English translation). Beginning in verse 22, Paul says [emphasis mine]:
Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
Wait a minute – Paul was flogged 39 times on five different occasions? And at the hands of the Jews? How on earth did the Jews get the authority to sentence him to be flogged?
First, the reference to “forty lashes minus one” is clearly a Jewish punishment meant to conform to a sentence specified in Deuteronomy 25:1-3, which says:
Suppose two persons have a dispute and enter into litigation, and the judges decide between them, declaring one to be in the right and the other to be in the wrong. If the one in the wrong deserves to be flogged, the judge shall make that person lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of lashes proportionate to the offense. Forty lashes may be given but not more; if more lashes than these are given, your neighbor will be degraded in your sight.
The rabbinic custom was to deliver no more than 39 lashes in case the one administering the sentence miscounted, administered more than 40 lashes, and thus became a lawbreaker.
Now, about the authority of the Jews to sentence Paul to a flogging. Roman law granted the Sanhedrin and Jewish leaders the right to administer their own laws, which included sentencing lawbreakers to be punished under Jewish law. Usually the sentence was carried out by Roman authorities, though that wasn’t always the case. So, as a Jew Paul could be sentenced to flogging for blasphemy by Jewish authorities, but here is the kicker: Paul was also a Roman citizen and at any point could have repudiated Judaism, placing him outside the jurisdiction of the Sanhedrin, yet he chose not to do so, even calling them his “own people” in 2 Corinthians 11, as referenced earlier.
This is what is so challenging for me. I am weak and probably would not submit to a flogging if I had an escape clause. I almost assuredly wouldn’t consider those willing to commit such awful acts “my own people”, yet Paul did. I wonder how many hearts were turned by Paul’s willingness to suffer so much for his “own people”? How many wavering testimonies among the nascent Christian communities were strengthened by Paul’s loyalty to what he had taught them? How many felt loved by Paul who, rather than turn his back on them, demonstrated that he considered the strength of their bond greater than his suffering?
As I consider these questions and the implications of Paul’s actions, he seems to embody what it means to be Christian. It is terribly difficult and calls us to act in ways that may seem irrational. But Paul was mimicking his Master. His Master was, as Paul put it, “the image of God,” thus Paul was trying to also be the mirror reflecting God’s image into the world. Perhaps that is what Moroni meant when, after discoursing on charity, he says, in Moroni 7:48 [emphasis mine]:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ; that ye may become the sons of God; that when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure. Amen.