Downwardly mobile

The American Dream: endless upward mobility, in which hard work and determination always pays off in the end. Parents tell their children, “You can do anything you want. You can be anything you want to be, if you just put your mind to it.” Many people come to America to pursue that promise.

It’s easier to believe in the Dream when the economy is humming along nicely. But things don’t always work out as hoped, and economic downturns have a way of revealing tears in the social fabric. We’re faced with the uncomfortable realization that the promise of upward mobility isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

The apostle Paul might have considered it obvious.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul has been engaging in a bit of upside-down bragging to make a point. Others might boast of their strength and success, but as an apostle of the crucified Jesus, Paul prefers to boast in his suffering: everything from the imprisonment to sleeplessness, from being brutally beaten to the constant concern over the spiritual health of those under his care.

“If it’s necessary to brag,” Paul says, wishing that it was not, “I’ll brag about my weaknesses” (2 Cor 11:30, CEB). And in chapter 12, he’ll make the point even more forcefully.

But here at the end of chapter 11, he illustrates with a seemingly odd little story:

The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, the one who is blessed forever, knows that I’m not lying. At Damascus the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to capture me, but I got away from him by being lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall. (2 Cor 11:31-33, CEB)

What little we know about the story is told in Acts 9:19-25. There it says nothing about a King Aretas nor his governor (Aretas IV was a Nabataean king); according to Acts, the murderous conspiracy against Paul (still Saul at that point) involved the Jews, who were offended by his bold preaching about Jesus in the synagogues.

Paul seems to think the story important, and uses oath language to swear by its truth. But why this story? And why here?

Some scholars, like N. T. Wright, see this as a reference to a Roman custom that would have been known to the Corinthians. When the Roman laid siege to a fortified city, ladders would have to be used to storm the high battlements. But pity the first soldier up the ladder, who stood a good chance of being killed from above. Thus, for motivation, a victor’s crown — the corona muralis, or “crown of the wall,” made to look like a ring of battlements — would be awarded to the first man over the wall who lived to tell about it.

For Wright, therefore, the story represents another example of Paul’s upside-down boasting. Instead of going up the wall, he was let down through it. Instead of a corona muralis and military glory, a crown of thorns and a life of suffering. Similarly, other scholars see the image of being lowered in a basket as a humble counterpoint to his being “caught up into the third heaven” in the story he’ll tell next (2 Cor 12:2).

Whatever might be the case, it does seem that the story is meant to illustrate a kind of apostolic “downward mobility.” Saul of Tarsus was a zealous persecutor of the early Jesus movement, a man to be feared. He was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians, when he had an unexpected encounter: the risen Jesus blinded him, grabbed him by the spiritual scruff of the neck, and told him to go into the city and await instructions.

Once he had recovered his sight as miraculously as he had lost it, Saul was a changed man. The enemy of the church became Jesus’ greatest defender, baffling the Jews in Damascus. An assassination plot was hatched. But he escaped, somewhat ignominiously, by being put in a basket and lowered to the ground through a hole in the wall.

This was a bit of a come-down for a man who carried the authority of the chief priests and had carte blanche to arrest Christians anywhere he could find them.

Paul knew downward mobility. And he embraced it, knowing that his weakness revealed God’s strength. That’s what he wants the Corinthians to understand, and that’s the argument he’ll make next.