After we had reached safety, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The natives showed us unusual kindness. Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us round it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, ‘This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds and began to say that he was a god. Now in the neighbourhood of that place were lands belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It so happened that the father of Publius lay sick in bed with fever and dysentery. Paul visited him and cured him by praying and putting his hands on him. After this happened, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. They bestowed many honours on us, and when we were about to sail, they put on board all the provisions we needed.
The last time we visited Malta in search of some winter sun it was cold all week. The wind seemed to whistle straight from the Alps, down the coast of Italy and hit Malta. The island in the picture (St Paul’s Island) is said to be where the shipwreck happened as it gets the full force of the northerly wind. The site of the shipwreck in fact is generally thought to be to the east of the main island of Malta.
As a result of Paul’s encounter with the viper, and miraculous escape from death, the survivors are treated with a mixture of hospitality, courtesy and awe. This combination allows Paul the opportunity to demonstrate the healing power of God. The outcome was a replacement or repaired ship being fully provisioned for the final leg of the journey. According to St John Chrysostom this shows Paul converted a large number, though there is no account in Acts of mass conversions. Also according to tradition, Publius became the first Bishop of Malta.
Paul’s determination to appeal to Caesar drives them on, where it might have been thought he would have taken the opportunity to remain in a place of safety with some status. The effect of Paul’s ministry is still celebrated with a festival each year on February 10th with fires lit in braziers or as bonfires outside churches.
Prayer God, creator, we do not know what effect we have on the lives of those we meet. May we greet with grace and love all those we meet especially when our own situation seems less appropriate than we would like. Amen
The Rev’d Ruth Browning, retired minister worshipping with Thornbury URC