Acts 18: 12- 17
While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”
Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” So he drove them off. Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatever.
I remember a story narrated by Rev Abey T Mammen in midst of his ever thought provoking sermons. It went like this. There was a man who was bitten by a dog. He was taken to the hospital and the doctor finds out that the man was bitten by a dog with rabies. Now people who know about the disease do know the amount of frothing from the mouth and the literal dog like behavior that the person contracts. But when this man calmed down he started taking a paper and started writing. His concerned relatives who were sure of his death thought to themselves that this man was writing his will. When they came closer they saw him writing names and were convinced that he was indeed writing the will of his earthly inheritance. When they asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am writing the names of my enemies so that I can bite them.”
The point that the story makes is the bitterness that we live with every day. The deep trouble that we all have in letting go off our vengeance. Yesterday the newspapers were full of the statement by Prime Ministerial Candidate of India Narendra Modi who called his opponent Arvind Kejriwal, a Pakistani agent along with A. K. Antony. This is by a man who in all his speeches starts with the word ‘Mitron…’ which means friends. My friend Aby Tharakan very rightly pointed out that for some to succeed they need a good enemy. Nurturing a hurt is what we all do, we like it or not. It is this sense of revenge that drives us further. But Anne Lamott very cryptically says ‘Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.’ But in spite of knowing all this we find forgiving or letting go of our hurt as a sign of weakness.
Now let us come to our passage. We all know that Paul had a lot of opponents. They tried all they could to destroy him and the gospel. The fact that he too belonged to that gang once is really incredible. In the text we see that the Jews in Corinth made an attack on Paul and brought him in front of the Roman Proconsul Gallio. They pressed a case of Paul misleading the people to believe in God, contrary to their law. Kenneth Bailey in ‘Paul from the Mediterranian Eye’ says for a case to be pressed against Paul, the initiative has to come from the Synagogue leader. Who was the synagogue leader? He was a man called Sosthenes. Kenneth Bailey affirms that this Sosthenes was very opposed to Paul as taking a person to a Roman court for faith matters was last done in the case of Jesus where he was brought in front of Pilate. This was surely done so that Paul gets the maximum punishment possible. But the plates were turned on the Jews in Corinth where Gallio dismissed the case and humiliated them. Gallio says this is your internal matter. He refuses to interfere. Now Kenneth Bailey explains that since this case was vigorously pressed by the leader of Synagogue Sosthenes, the Jews in Corinth held him solely responsible for the humiliation and therefore beat him up in front of the Proconsul who was least bothered about it.
Well the story ends there as far as the book of Acts is concerned. Where does this man Sosthenes disappear? Well we have to turn our Bibles to 1 Corinthians Chapter 1 verse 1. What do we see there? “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes.” Tada. Lost and found? How did that happen? The man who was out to harm Paul and was not ready for any internal compromises, who dragged him to the courts, features in the opening statement of the First Letter to Corinthians. He appears there as a co- author of the letter. It is said that it must be Sosthenes who wrote the Letter as a secretary writes and Paul only dictated it. Whatever it is, this is surely a dramatic turn around like Paul himself who was out to harm the believers, aids the gospel. Kenneth Bailey proposes the theory that, that evening when Sosthenes was attacked and humiliated, when he was hurting over the psychological and physical wounds, Paul must have visited him. He must have extended his friendship and pardoned Sosthenes. It makes sense that in this very letter to the Church of Corinth Paul writes “We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it;” (1 Corinthians 4: 12). Let us not forget that Paul wrote an entire letter to Philemon to be reconciled to his ‘Run Away Slave’, Onesimus. So the thrust of Paul’s ministry was reconciliation and forgiveness, in theology and in action.
“ Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
[ Romans 12: 19- 21)
Kenneth bailey says that Paul’s formulation above could be based on his experience of reconciliation with his opponent Sosthenes. The reaching out of Paul to Sosthenes transformed an opponent of Paul as a fellow worker of the gospel. I truly find this story very incredible.
We live in midst of a culture where honour and revenge are given a lot of importance. But Christian life and the example of Jesus calls us for a radical commitment to ‘Reconciliation and forgiveness.’ The Great Lent starts with the Service of Shubkono which is a service of Reconciliation and forgiveness. Reconciliation and Forgiveness is the major emphasis of the Mar Thoma Liturgy and the Liturgy of many other Denominations. Let me leave you with a true story that took place in South Africa where Nelson Mandela had won and the Apartheid was defeated. The strategy of Justice was the commission of ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ where the oppressor faces the oppressed in the court room. So let us now read this incredible story.
The scene is a courtroom trial in South Africa
A frail black woman rises slowly to her feet. She is something over 70 years of age. Facing across the room are several white security police officers, one of whom, Mr van der Broek, has just been tried and found implicated in the murders of both the woman’s son and her husband some years before. He had come to the woman’s home, taken her son, shot him at point blank range and then set the young man’s body on fire while he and his officers partied nearby.
Several years later, van der Broek and his cohorts had returned to take away her husband as well. For many months she heard nothing of his whereabouts. Then almost two years after her husband’s disappearance, van de Broek came back to fetch the woman herself.
How vividly she remembers that evening, going to a place beside a river where she was shown her husband, bound and beaten, but still strong in spirit, lying on a pile of wood. The last words heard from his lips as the officers poured gasoline over his body and set him aflame were, “Father forgive them…”
Now the woman stands in the courtroom and listens to the confessions offered by Mr van de Broek. A member of the South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission turns to her and asks, “So what do you want? How should justice be done to this man who has so brutally destroyed your family?”
“I want three things,” begins the old woman calmly, but confidently. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.”
She pauses, then continues “My husband and son were my only family, I want secondly, therefore, for Mr van der Broek to become my son. I would like him to come twice a month to the ghetto and spend a day with me so that I can pour out on him whatever love I still have remaining in me.
“And finally,” she says, “I want a third thing. This is also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr van der Broek in my arms and embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistants come to lead the elderly woman across the room, Mr van der Broek, overwhelmed by what he has just heard, faints. As he does, those in the courtroom, family, friends neighbours – all victims of decades of oppression and injustice – begin to sing, softly but assuredly. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”
Rev Merin Mathew
Mar Thoma Syrian Church