Commentary on Acts 9:1-20
Today’s reading touches on one of the major turning points in the development of the early Christian community and indeed for the future of the whole Church in centuries to come.
Luke gives three accounts (Acts 9:1-20; 22:5-16; 26:10-18) of this momentous event. The second and third accounts are given in Paul’s own words as parts of discourses he gave. Paul also speaks about the experience in the Letter to the Galatians (Gal 1:12-17). The incident took place probably in 36 AD, about 12 years before the council of Jerusalem, which cleared the way for Gentiles to be fully incorporated in the Christian community. The council was held in AD 49.
Saul, we are told, was still breathing “murderous threats” against the “disciples of the Lord”. We know that he was directly implicated in the killing of Stephen but there are hints, by Paul himself, that others died or came very close to it because of his actions (cf. Acts 22:4; 26:10).
His next target were the Christians in Damascus. For this he got letters of authorisation from the high priest, probably Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin had authority over Jews not only in Judea but elsewhere in the diaspora as well. The Romans recognised the high priest’s jurisdiction over the members of the Jewish communities even outside Palestine and, according to 1 Macc 15:21, this even included right of extradition.
Damascus was located in the Roman province of Syria and the nearest important city outside of Palestine. It was about 250 km (150 miles) north of Jerusalem and it would have taken four to six days to get there. It had a large Jewish population.
Saul’s mission was to find men and women who “belonged to the Way” and bring them back in shackles to Jerusalem, where they could be tried and perhaps even sentenced to death. “Followers of the Way” is a name for the early Christians and refers to the pattern of life peculiar to the Christians. The term occurs a number of times in the Acts and only there. Jesus, of course, we remember had said: “I am the Way: I am truth and life” (John 14:6).
On his way, Saul was suddenly surrounded by a bright light and fell to the ground. (We are told in Acts 26:13 that it was about noon.)
At the same time, he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” To which Paul replied with another question, “Who are you, Lord?” In the rabbinic tradition, such a disembodied voice would have been understood as the voice of God himself. The solemn repetition of Saul’s name (“Saul, Saul…”) and the bright light suggested to him that he was in the presence of a deity and hence his use of the address, “Lord” (kyrie, ).
The reply he gets is: “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting.” Here we have Jesus identifying himself fully with his followers. “As often as you do it to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me” (Matt 25:40). And “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me; and those who welcome me welcome the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40). And in the New Testament letters, it is specifically Paul who will later remind us that the Christian community is the Body of the Risen Christ. To attack the Body is to attack Christ himself. Saul is also told to go into Damascus, where he will be given further instructions.
Saul’s companions could hear what was being said but could not see anything. Saul, meanwhile, rose to his feet unable to see, although his eyes were open. His companions lead the sightless and helpless Saul to the city. The recently all-powerful official is reduced to near impotence. For three whole days he was unable to see and he observed a total fast. The symbolism seems very clear: Saul, who was so confident that he was in possession of the truth, is shown to be very deficient in his vision of the truth.
In the meantime, a Christian called Ananias is told to go to a house in Damascus where Saul will be found praying. He was told to go to Straight Street, which is probably the same long, straight street that still runs through the city from east to west and is in strong contrast to the other numerous winding streets of the city.
Not surprisingly, Ananias is rather reluctant to visit the man who has been arresting Christians right and left. “I have heard about this man… what evil things he has been doing to your saints in Jerusalem.” The term “saints” was originally applied to the people of Israel but later became the usual term for Christians. It occurs many times in Paul’s letters. Since God is the Holy One, those are consecrated to his service can be called ‘holy’ also.
But the Lord insists: “You must go! This man is the instrument I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I myself shall indicate to him how much he will have to suffer for my name.”
What an extraordinary turn of events! How strange are God’s ways! How often they go contrary to all our presumptions and expectations! The man, the committed Pharisee, who was so set on wiping out the Christian way is to become Jesus’ chosen instrument to spread his name among the non-Jews, hitherto seen as utter infidels. He will become one of the main pillars, together with Peter, as a founder of Christianity. Through his writings, his influence will be enormous in the centuries following, right down to our own. And, in the process, he will pay a high price in personal sacrifice and suffering.
Ananias then goes to the house. He addresses Saul, whom he had been so reluctant to see, as his “brother”. He says he has been sent by the Lord, the same one who appeared to Saul on the road. The Risen Jesus had actually appeared to Saul; it was not a mere vision. It is on this seeing that Saul would base his qualification to be an apostle.
Ananias then lays his hands on Saul giving him the gift of the Spirit of Jesus. Immediately the scales of blindness fall from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. But what he is seeing is now very different from before.
Saul rises up – hints of resurrection and new life – and is baptised. He begins eating again and regains his strength. And, almost immediately, the persecutor of Christians who had been breathing murderous threats, was going to the Jewish synagogues proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.
Again, we see, the strange ways of God. Ananias, the man who “received” Paul into the Christian community, is someone who only appears here and never again. He was, in every other way, a very inconsequential member of the community. He is like most of us in that regard but, like him, God may send a Saul/Paul into our lives too and ask us – insignificant though we feel ourselves to be – to act as the agent to bring this person to God. In the life of every great Church leader or prophet are hundreds of unidentified people who played a crucial role in their becoming what they became.
Paul could now see, but not just physically. He could see the truth about Jesus and the inadequacy of his own previous ideas, however sincerely they may have been held. He was now ready for baptism and, for the first time since his experience on the road to Damascus, he broke his fast.
A completely new chapter in the development of the early Church was about to begin. There is obviously here a great deal for us to reflect on in our own lives, about our way of treating others, about our blindness and our constant need for conversion, and about our responsibility to share our faith with others.