Fool me once, shame on you…

It’s an old saying (well, except for that last part); some version of it can be traced back to the 17th century at least. But it expresses a timeless sentiment: nobody likes to be played for a fool. Rightly so.

The situation, however, is rarely so simple. We make errors of judgment all the time. We misperceive and misunderstand another’s meaning and intentions, then become personally invested in our (mis)interpretation. We want to see things in a particular way; we look for excuses to believe what we want to believe.

A new piece of information, by itself, won’t change our stance. We practically have to be shoved off our way of thinking by undeniable evidence. And when we can no longer deny that we’ve made a mistake, we turn a blind eye to our own responsibility in the matter, and blame the other person for deceiving us.

The apostles Paul and Barnabas, fleeing persecution in the city of Iconium, confronted just such a situation when they came to Lystra. The trouble began with a miraculous healing: 

In Lystra there was a certain man who lacked strength in his legs. He had been crippled since birth and had never walked. Sitting there, he heard Paul speaking. Paul stared at him and saw that he believed he could be healed. Raising his voice, Paul said, “Stand up straight on your feet!” He jumped up and began to walk. (Acts 14:8-10, CEB)

There are striking parallels here with the earlier story of the healing miracle performed by Peter in the Jerusalem temple (Acts 3:1-10). Both of the lame men who were healed are described as “crippled since birth” (Luke uses the same Greek phrase); Peter and Paul both made direct eye contact with them; they are commanded to get up, and they jump up and walk for the first time in their lives.

But the difference is that Paul had to struggle with a language barrier that made it impossible to understand the crowd’s reaction to the miracle.

With the Gentiles of Lystra, Paul probably spoke Greek. But the crowd responded to the miracle in their native Lycaonian tongue, shouting, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” (Acts 14:11, NRSV). They believed that Zeus and Hermes had come to them in the persons of Barnabas and Paul.

Their misunderstanding had its cultural roots. Two generations earlier, the Roman poet Ovid had told the story of Baucis and Philemon, a poor, elderly couple who were visited by Zeus (or Jupiter, to the Romans) and Hermes (or Mercury), who were disguised as ordinary peasants. The gods went door to door in the village, seeking a place to sleep. Everywhere they went, they were turned away — until they were welcomed into the couple’s homely little cottage. In the end, Zeus destroyed the village but rewarded Baucis and Philemon for their selfless hospitality.

We can understand, therefore, why the people of Lystra reacted as they did. Indeed, Luke tells us that there was a temple of Zeus just outside the city, which suggests that they saw Zeus as their protector. Ovid’s story had become local legend, and the people knew they had to treat their visitors well if they wanted to be rewarded — and avoid destruction. 

Not speaking the language, Paul and Barnabas could not at first understand what was going on. But the arrival of the priest of Zeus with oxen ready for sacrifice was a major clue. 

Horrified, the apostles begged them to stop: No, friends, no! We’re just ordinary men like you. We’re trying to point you to the only true and living God, the Creator, the giver of all good gifts!  “Even with these words,” Luke says, “they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:18).

That might have been the end of it. After everyone had calmed down, Paul and Barnabas might have been offered the Lycaonian equivalent of “Oops, our bad. Sorry for the mix-up.”

But as we’ve seen, Paul and Barnabas’ opponents had come from other cities to stir up trouble. The crowds had made an embarrassing mistake, and the troublemakers capitalized on it, blaming and demonizing the apostles. The result was mob violence: “Then they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples surrounded him, he got up and went into the city” (Acts 14:19-20).

Luke’s description of Paul’s recovery is a bit mysterious — but it has an air of the miraculous to it. It may be that Luke means us to see the parallel between Paul’s story and that of Jesus: Do a miracle and be put on a pedestal by the crowds; refuse to be worshiped the way they want and be knocked off the pedestal; be killed in anger and miraculously survive.

But even if Luke doesn’t intend the parallel, Paul himself certainly understands his suffering as following in the footsteps of his Lord.

Were Paul and Barnabas’ missionary efforts in Lystra for nothing? Hardly, as we’ll see in the next post.

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