No doubt the Chief Priests and whole Sanhedrin were excited to have a chance to get Paul condemned by Roman authority but surely they must have also been a bit nervous. After all, the top Roman military commander of their area was personally bringing Paul before them to hear their complaint. And, the Pharisees and Sadducees had no great love for Roman authority. But, now was their chance to get Paul condemned and hopefully executed. So they were ready.
Paul, too, was ready. He knew that while they were united in their desire to get him condemned, their unity was a fragile thing because there were many other issues about which they vigorously disagreed. So, as soon as he stood before their condemning eyes, he launched his plan. “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of Pharisees; I am on trial for hope in the resurrection of the dead.” Resurrection of the dead was a belief firmly held by the Pharisees but hotly denied by the Sadducees. So the in-fighting began.
The argument became so heated that the military commander grew fearful for Paul’s life so had his troops rescue Paul from the room and bring him to safety, leaving the mayhem in the Sanhedrin going full blast.
Every time I read this account of Paul’s quick thinking, it reminds me of the many internal disagreements we experience in the Church. We have our factions and our arguments about sometimes important but often enough not essential issues. We condemn those who don’t agree with us and sometimes treat them with disrespect and even contempt. We wrap ourselves in our convictions and are confident that those who don’t share our every belief are unworthy.
Paul was a man of deep conviction and strong beliefs. Yet, he could acknowledge that he had been wrong in his beliefs about Jesus and he could embrace those he had once condemned. At first he was convinced that the followers of Jesus were heretics and should be condemned, even to death. After his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, he realized that Christ was the fulfillment of God’s revelation. And that was just the beginning of the changes in his life. He continued to grow in his understanding, changing his views on the law, moving beyond the Jewish community to the Gentiles, and recognizing in the sufferings and death of Christ the path to true life for all believers. Paul is a remarkable example of someone with strong faith who could still really listen to the voice of God coming to him through the people in his life.
We are challenged every day to give an account of our faith. Unlike the Pharisees and Sadducees, we must not get caught up in internal squabbles and self-righteous condemnations of others but give visible witness to God’s love for all peoples. May God give us a loving heart.
Fr. Michael Higgins, C.P. is on the retreat team at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.