After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus. Since they were staying there for several days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying, ‘There is a man here who was left in prison by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him and asked for a sentence against him. I told them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met the accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defence against the charge. So when they met here, I lost no time, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of his Imperial Majesty, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to the emperor.’ Agrippa said to Festus, ‘I would like to hear the man myself.’
I wonder what strikes you as you read these verses. For me it is a number of things.
First there is the strong sense of being given a “fly on the wall” insight into the exchanges between the powerful folk, the “movers and shakers” in this particular corner of the Roman Empire at the time of the Early Church. Festus is the newly appointed governor and among those who come to pay their respects is King Herod Agrippa. Herod is seen as an expert in Jewish affairs and Festus is keen to seek his advice on the problem case of Paul. Paul is a Roman citizen and has appealed to be tried under the aegis of the Emperor … but the charges against him appear to be about arcane Jewish matters.
Apart from this particular historical context, this passage also raises issues that endure to this present day. We get a visceral sense of the ordinary citizen cast adrift within the machinations of high politics; of the individual at the mercy of the powerful. This may echo the sense of powerlessness that many experience in our current world. So, for instance, we see civilians crushed by war instigated by autocratic leaders and families suffering financial insecurity whilst the powerful jockey for position, with a turnover of four prime ministers in almost as many years.
So does power lie in the hands of rulers? Do they have the ultimate control of events and destinies whilst the humble individual looks helplessly on? Well this is certainly not the Christian worldview. In these verses Paul may appear to be a powerless bit player but we now see his role in laying the foundations of the Christian movement that swept the world.
Whilst in the grip of his Nazi oppressors, the great theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put these power relations into their true perspective: “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
Dear God, When we despair of events; of the cruelty inflicted by oppressors; of the defenceless crushed by governments and nations; of the destitution of individuals caused by despots and corporations, … help us to remember where the ultimate power lies – in the love and grace of our suffering, crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Professor Graham Handscomb, Member of Christ Church URC Chelmsford