Up to this point they listened to him, but then they shouted, ‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’ And while they were shouting, throwing off their cloaks, and tossing dust into the air, the tribune directed that he was to be brought into the barracks, and ordered him to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him. But when they had tied him up with thongs, Paul said to the centurion who was standing by, ‘Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?’ When the centurion heard that, he went to the tribune and said to him, ‘What are you about to do? This man is a Roman citizen.’ The tribune came and asked Paul, ‘Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ The tribune answered, ‘It cost me a large sum of money to get my citizenship.’ Paul said, ‘But I was born a citizen.’ Immediately those who were about to examine him drew back from him; and the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him. Since he wanted to find out what Paul was being accused of by the Jews, the next day he released him and ordered the chief priests and the entire council to meet. He brought Paul down and had him stand before them.
The story of Paul continues. Arrested in the Temple and taken bound in chains to the Roman citadel, Paul was allowed by the Tribune to address the Hebrew crowd. At first, they listened to him, but they become inflamed and demand his life. Not understanding what all the fuss was about, and getting no sense from the crowd, the Tribune decided that Paul should be interrogated. Thinking that Paul was a mere Jew (v.13) this would include flogging – strictly lawful only in the case of slaves and the low-born. When he has been strung up, Paul decides to play his ace: he is a Roman citizen! Everyone is aghast since they had already done enough to ensure that should Paul choose to complain, they would be punished severely. The sensible thing for the Tribune to do at this point is to send Paul to stand in front of the Jewish authorities, which is what he does.
In this passage, the author parallels the predicament that Paul finds himself in with the trial of Jesus, but with one crucial difference. Jesus does nothing to save himself: Paul claims privilege to short circuit the proceedings.
Many of us have privileges of one sort or another, ranging from the trivial to the important. Maybe a Frequent Flier card allows us to jump the queue at the airport, saving our precious time. Maybe we have a passport allowing us to cross borders without being interrogated as to our motives or financial status; or a bank card giving access to money.
Privilege is not in itself necessarily a bad thing. Like so much else, it is how we use privilege that is important. If we use privilege to open doors to justice and peace; or to liberate resources to help someone in need; then privilege is well used. If we use privilege to feather our own nests, privilege is abused.
Perhaps Paul in exercising the privilege of Roman citizenship sought to avoid the pain of laceration of the flesh of his back. Perhaps he sought more time to preach the Gospel of Christ Jesus.
Liberating God, Help us to realise how privileged we are: how our lifestyle is so much better than many whose opportunity is limited and whose lives are constrained by rules imposed by others. When we run up against difficult situations guide us so that we use the resources we command for the benefit of all and not just ourselves. Amen
The Rev’d Ron Reid is a retired minister in the Mersey Synod serving as Link Minister at Rock Chapel, Farndon. He is a member at Upton-by-Chester URC