Who’s in charge here? (part 2)

Mob anger and violence. It stains American history. It continues to exist around the globe. And as the world has changed, it has taken on new forms, including the kind of mass cyber-bullying on social media that has driven vulnerable youth to depression and suicide.

As human beings, we are painfully susceptible to a mob mentality, and to turning to violence to maintain our hold on our power and position. But this is nothing new. It was part of what led to the crucifixion of Jesus.

And it was part of the repeated persecution of the apostle Paul.

As we saw in the previous post, some of the Jews and many Gentiles in Thessalonica believed what Paul had told them about Jesus. But the Jews who didn’t believe stirred up a lynch mob against Paul and Silas. They went looking for the evangelists at Jason’s house and, not finding them there, grabbed Jason and some other believers and dragged them before the city officials. Luke reports their loud, angry accusations:

These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.

Acts 17:6-7, NRSV

One can only imagine what poor, frightened Jason thought of all this. So this was what he got for his hospitality?

We shouldn’t miss an important irony here. The violence was begun by Jews, who weren’t convinced by Paul’s arguments and were jealous of his success with the Gentiles. Believing, apparently, that the political ends justified the means, they went to the marketplace to recruit some Gentile ruffians to help them start a riot to persecute Paul. In the process, they ended up taking sides with the imperial cult of emperor worship: “These people are big trouble, because what they’re all doing is in defiance of the emperor.”

Read, “our emperor.” Hardly what you’d expect a truly devout Jew to say.

But we shouldn’t be surprised. In his gospel, Luke reported that the Sanhedrin hauled Jesus before Pilate, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). Having examined Jesus himself, Pilate found him innocent of any legitimate charge and tried to free him. But for the sake of maintaining order, he bowed to the increasingly angry mob calling for Jesus’ crucifixion — including, astonishingly, the chief priests who openly declared in the presence of all, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15).

In the end, the officials acted more reasonably than the magistrates had in Philippi. Despite the uproar, despite the implied threat of losing the favor of Rome, they recognized that they couldn’t do much without Paul and Silas in custody. So they made Jason and the others post bail instead. This probably means that they paid a fine and promised that Paul and Silas would behave — which in practice meant that the evangelists were banished from the city, never to return as long as said officials were still in charge.

Paul and Silas had been accused of “turning the world upside down” (the NIV has “[causing] trouble all over the world”). There were always disturbances around the empire, and local authorities were quick to stamp them out, lest they attract unwanted attention from Rome.

But it seems unlikely that the Jews behind the Thessalonian mob knew much about Paul’s evangelistic activities in other places. Theirs was inflammatory rhetoric, designed to stir people to fear and violence.

And it worked.

But I suspect that Luke wants us to read the accusation as representing another, deeper layer of irony to the story. On the surface, the city officials were in charge, and behind their authority lay the shadow of Rome. For their part, the unbelieving Jews in Thessalonica probably patted themselves on the back for successfully thwarting Paul and Silas by manipulating the Romans and the Gentile mob.

What I think Luke wants his readers to understand, however, is that Paul really was turning the empire upside down with the gospel. Neither the Jews nor the mob had a clue what they were saying: “there is another king named Jesus.” And even as Paul and Silas were forced to move on to the city of Beroea, they left behind a fledgling church that would continue to thrive in dedication to that king.

God, in other words, was the one in charge, despite what anyone else might think or say.