A Restless Apostle Paul
When Paul comes to Athens Luke tells us that he is restless. The Spirit is at work within him, something is brewing, he is unsettled. At the synagogue he speaks to the Jews and those interested in Judaism, then goes out into the market place where the locals come together to keep life going – the shopping center, a busy place and a place to talk, a little leisurely shopping squeezed in during the days tasks. Unexpectedly, some of his hearers, who are philosophers, bring him to the Areopagus where he has an audience of what seems to be professional listeners. Luke describes them humorously as Athenians who ‘love nothing more than to tell or listen to something new.’
Paul must have been impressed by the temples and shrines he saw in Athens. The city was noted for them. As a Jew he lived in a less pagan world than that of such a cosmopolitan city. He focuses his talk immediately on a shrine he has seen ‘to a God Unknown’. Paul intends to make known to his listeners the God they have been worshiping but whom they do not know. His sharing is beautiful, moving in a respectful, understandable progression to his goal of telling them of Jesus who is Risen from the Dead. Can we hear Paul identifying with these people, perhaps being restless because he knows that they have their Gods but he has what they really are seeking? Could we see them like himself when he was knocked off the horse on his way in to Damascus? He describes them as among the people who grope for God, wanting to see God, although this God they seek is not really far from any one of us? Like the first preaching of Peter after the coming of the Holy Spirit, Paul proclaims Jesus, the Risen One, as proof to help them believe.
How he must have been crushed that his preaching ended with an invitation to come again at some later date, and knowing that no date would be set!
So Paul’s restless spirit was not calmed, probably even more stirred up as he left for Corinth. The first letter to the Corinthians says that Paul arrived fearful and weak. He meets Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple with whom he will work and minister. We might conclude from this that Paul did not leave Athens with plans, but came carrying the same restlessness with which he started his day in the synagogue and market place of Athens.
The failure in Athens, their lack of response to the Risen Lord, the ongoing groping in darkness of the Athenians amidst their numerous temples, the unheeded answer that Paul offered to the question of the Unknown God – all of these must have been ingredients stirring in his restless spirit. When Paul finds himself in Corinth his restlessness blossoms into the grace of a new understanding, a new missing piece that he can now articulate for himself and for all of us who continue to grope in darkness:
‘Yes, Jews demand “signs” and Greeks look for “wisdom,” but we preach Christ Crucified…God’s folly is wiser than men, and his weakness more powerful than men.’
Fr. William Murphy, CP is the pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Jamaica, New York.