Word for Today” – Acts 24 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

October 22, 2009 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

Paul & Felix 1Antonius Felix was the Roman procurator of Judea from AD 52-58.  According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, he secured his position as procurator through his brother Pallus, who was secretary for the Roman Emperor Claudius.  Josephus also notes that Felix, as a ruler, was a ruthless tyrant.  He arrested the Zealot leader, Eleazar, and transferred him to Rome to hold him there while he crucified his followers.  He also was rumored to have been behind the assassination of Israel’s high priest at that time, a man named Jonathan.  He was so wicked that even Rome’s own historians described him poorly.  The Roman senator Tacitus, for instance, writes, “Antonius Felix indulged in every kind of cruelty and immorality, wielding a king’s authority with all the instincts of a slave” (Histories, Book 5).  By all accounts, Felix was a miserable failure as a ruler.

That’s what makes the opening of today’s reading from Acts 24 so surprising.  Paul is made to stand trial before the wicked and inept Felix.  Paul’s prosecutor, serving on behalf of his Jewish accusers, a man named Tertullus, opens his case against Paul thusly:  “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude” (verses 2-3).  Huh?  Peace?  Foresight?  Reforms?  This praise is lavished upon a man who eventually had to resign his post because he conspired to kill many of his region’s inhabitants!  That hardly sounds like a peaceful, thoughtful, reformational rule to me.

Perhaps a clue as to why this prosecuting lawyer Tertullus would say such flattering, even if completely untrue, things to Felix comes in the Greek word used for “lawyer” in verse 1.  It is the word rhetor, from whence we get our English word “rhetorician.”  Apparently, Tertullus was a man who knew how to give a good speech.  He knew how to butter someone up.  He knew how to curry favor.  And this is exactly what he’s doing with Felix.  He flatters Felix, not because he truly believes that he’s a good ruler, but in order to win his approval so that Felix will approve Paul’s condemnation.   Thus, Tertullus tells Felix what he wants to hear.  He tells him that he’s good.

Like Tertullus with Felix, we, more often than not, desire the same kind of affirmation and flattery, even if it’s untrue.  We like to be told what we want to hear.  We like to be told that we are good.  That’s why company executives have “yes men” and superstars have “groupies.”  Adoration is a potent drug.

In his book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, which is sure to become a watershed work with time, Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes what he has coined as the “moralistic therapeutic deism” of today’s teenagers.  At the heart of this theological system, or, more accurately, this theological hodgepodge, is the belief that “the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.”  In other words, today’s teens want to be told what they want to hear.  They want to be told that they are good.

For our teens, and for many people for that matter, God becomes a mere means to an end – a divinity who will tell them what they want to hear – who will tell them that they’re doing a good, or at least adequate, job.  As Smith writes, “God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, [and] professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves.” The problem with this is that it’s not true and, I might add, is a pathetically hollow vision of God.  Perhaps that is why people who believe in this god believe in him only nominally and conveniently.

In the final analysis, we are both worse and better than the tepid term “good” would connote.  We are, of course, worse than “good” because we are sinners, deserving of death and eternal condemnation.  But then again, we are also much better than “good” because we are God’s redeemed children, declared righteous for Christ’s sake, which means that, in God’s sight, we’re not just “good,” we are perfect, for we wear Christ’s robe of righteousness.  But this is not, nor has it ever been, a particularly popular message.  It is not what people want to hear.  And the Scripture writers knew full well that this is not what people want to hear.  As Paul writes: “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).  Itching ears will settle for the siren of moralistic therapeutic deism long before they will trust the true and certain message of Scripture concerning our sin and Christ’s righteousness.

A great thing about Scripture is that even if it doesn’t tell us what we want to hear, it always tells us what we need to hear.  Unlike Tertullus, it never uses empty rhetoric to massage our pride and inflate our egos.  Scripture always tells us the truth – the truth about ourselves and the truth about God.  I hope you’re listening.

Entry filed under: Word for Today.

“Word for Today” – Acts 23 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com “Word for Today” – Acts 25 – www.concordialutheranchurch.com

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