“I’m going over your head”

“Middle management.” They have more power than the people below them in the corporate food chain. But they also have more responsibility to those higher up the chain. By virtue of their position in the hierarchy, they’re caught in the middle. They get blasted from above, and needled from below. 

And for anxious middle managers, there’s one well-known threat from below that’s likely to spur them to action: “If you don’t do something about this, I’m going over your head.” 

If you’ve ever been in that position, you know how it feels. But now try to imagine this: someone tells you they’re going over your head…and you’re relieved, even jubilant. Can you picture it?

Because that, I think, is similar to what happened between Governor Festus and the apostle Paul. 

. . .

Festus, the inexperienced new governor of the province of Judea, was trying to clear his desk of the unfinished business his predecessor, Felix, had left behind. Festus was left to puzzle over the curious case of the apostle Paul, who had been kept in Roman custody even though there were no clear charges against him, and no convictions.

Felix had done this as a favor to the Jews, and they wanted more favors from Festus. He had already rejected their request to have Paul transferred to Jerusalem. Did he suspect the possibility of foul play? Surely he knew of the assassination plot that got Paul sent to Felix in the first place. If so, then his wish “to do the Jews a favor” (Acts 25:9, NRSV) takes on a more sinister tone.

At the tribunal, Festus asked Paul directly, in front of his accusers, if he would agree to shift the venue of the hearing to Jerusalem. “I’d still be the one making the decision,” Festus reassured him. But by asking the question, he had already tipped his political hand. This was the thin end of the wedge, and Paul suspected that other political “favors” might follow once he was in the city where people had sought to kill him, not once, but twice.

Paul’s response was direct, almost an accusation in itself:

I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor. (Acts 25:10-11)

Look, he seems to say, with an edge in his voice. You are the emperor’s representative. Your authority is as good here in Caesarea as it is in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the province. You know that I haven’t done anything wrong to the Jews; why do you want to take me to Jerusalem? That’s putting my life on the line. If I deserve to die for something I’ve done, fine. But their charges against me are bogus, and you know it. You can’t hand me over to them.

Did Paul look Festus in the eye as he said this? He must not have seen anything there that instilled confidence in him, some reassurance that Festus got the message and would do the right thing. So he slapped down his ace in the hole. Paul had been falsely accused of seditious behavior, of acting against the emperor. Well, all right then: as a Roman citizen, he asserted his right to have the emperor himself — Nero — hear his case.

It should be said that Nero had not yet committed the atrocities against Christians for which he was known. And the Roman justice system had actually served Paul reasonably well during his missionary journeys, whenever the resentful Jews of a city clamored for his blood. If Festus couldn’t be trusted, Paul’s gambit made sense.

Festus, for his part, was probably surprised — and delighted. Scholars disagree as to whether the governor had any choice in the matter, once Paul had asserted his rights as a Roman citizen. But Luke’s words suggest that he did. Festus conferred with his leadership council and then declared, “You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go” (Acts 25:12).

I imagine him thinking, I’ve got nothing to fear. I’ve done my job, and I’d be abiding by the law to grant the request. Then he’ll be out of my hair, and I won’t be in the middle anymore. Let the high priest and his cronies try to muscle the emperor, if they dare!

“To the emperor you will go,” Festus said, secretly relieved. As for Paul… was he also relieved to have dodged a bullet? Perhaps. And we don’t want to underestimate the difficulties or the precariousness of his situation.

But there’s another reality here, reflected in the way that he consistently pointed to the resurrection, whether being examined by the high priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, or a Roman governor in Caesarea.

Jesus had promised that Paul would preach the gospel in Rome.

He wouldn’t be travelling first class. But to the emperor he would go.