Kicking against the goads

In our household, during these months of pandemic, we’ve been buying a lot of things online. So in case you’re in the market for one, you can rejoice in the knowledge that you can go on and take your pick from a variety of… cattle prods. They’re battery operated, and deliver a low-voltage shock that won’t actually harm Bessie.

But they might just give her the motivation she needs to go where you want her to go.

Bessie and her kin have always needed a bit of persuasion to submit their will to some human taskmaster. But of course, things haven’t always been so high tech. In times past, prods were little more than long, sharp sticks that a farmer could use to poke at his ox-team from behind a plow. The oxen, of course, didn’t always take kindly to the gesture, and would bellow and kick in protest.

You have to admit, it’s an interesting metaphor for Jesus to apply to the apostle Paul.

. . .

In making his defense before King Agrippa, Paul has highlighted his personal history as a faithful Jew. His hope has always been in a day of resurrection, a hope shared by his fellow Pharisees and much of the rank and file of his Jewish contemporaries. Agrippa, himself a Jew and an expert in things Jewish, would have understood Paul’s point. Whatever one might make of Paul’s conduct and ideas, he was not the leader of some heretical sect.

With that as a background, Paul then turns to the story of his conversion. He starts with a description of how zealous he was at first in his persecution of Christians. We’ve seen much of this story before, of course, but this telling is more intense and adds some details.

Paul describes himself as “furiously enraged” (Acts 26:11, NRSV) at followers of Jesus, chasing them even to foreign cities. Deputized by the high priest, he went about arresting and imprisoning Christians, even approving of their executions. He admits to trying to force Christians to blaspheme: presumably, to renounce their faith by cursing the name of Jesus. He doesn’t say what tactics he used. But we can be sure it wasn’t a reasoned chat over a cup of coffee.

This bit of biography sets up the story of his experience on the road into Damascus:

I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’  (Acts 26:12-14)

Again, we have a familiar tale, told slightly differently. Unlike the version in Acts 22, for example, Paul says nothing about being blinded, nor does he mention the role of Ananias. This is also the first time we hear of anyone other than Paul falling to the ground.

The most interesting element of this version of the story, however, is the additional detail in what Jesus said to Paul. What did Jesus mean when he told Paul that it hurts him to kick against the goads?

Note that Jesus’ concern here is for Paul. The tone is not, “Hey, you. Yes, you, little man — how dare you persecute me?” Jesus as Lord is not threatened by Paul’s actions. There is tenderness in the repetition of the name, as if Jesus were shaking his head in pity, saying, “Oh, Saul, Saul. Why are you doing this to yourself? I’m Lord; you can’t fight me.”

I have the mental image of a farmer plowing a field behind his ox, wanting to keep the furrows straight and true. If the ox strays, he must be prodded. And the more he resists, the harder the discipline.

But the farmer doesn’t give up on the ox.

Paul is Jesus’ chosen instrument. Nobody saw that coming, least of all Paul himself. Whatever convincing it takes, Jesus will put Paul on the path he has laid out for him. Apparently, striking him blind and letting him mull things over for a few days, helpless, was enough to do the trick. Who knows what other prods Paul may have ignored?

And how will Jesus describe the path he is calling Paul to tread? We’ll see that in the next post.