January 25, 2017
As Paul’s life was about to take a radically new direction from violent persecutor of the nascent church to apostle of Christ, words from above were heard: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” Ouch. A goad is a kind of cattle prod, a pointed stick used to guide oxen when plowing or to clean mud and clay from the plowshare. If it hurts, stop doing it, my mother always said.
In Acts 26:14, “goad” is used metaphorically as it often was by the Greek playwrights. Here it refers to Saul’s Jewish faith, his fidelity to the tradition of “the prophets and Moses.” The voice from Jesus is not saying he is to abandon that past, but to go with where at its best it is leading him and stop resisting. Luke seems to be telling us that the possibility of Saul becoming the single greatest interpreter of Christ to the Gentile world had its roots in his lifelong formation as a faithful Jewish man. We know that his penchant for taking on matters of life in a zealous manner, including his religious life, led to extreme behavior. Yet in his conversion, God’s grace took that aberrant personal extremism and redirected it to Christ’s service.
Often conversion is described as an event that takes place in a moment. Over the years, however, my observation of people’s religious experience tells me this is not usually the case. It is more a process and there is always a context. To me conversion is more like falling in love than anything else. It can be experienced as momentous, life-renewing and a complete re-direction of energy, yet it occurs out of one’s own history and all that has led someone to a particular moment of encounter. For Saul it was his Jewish faith tradition which he was resisting in its fullness, and once he stopped kicking against that goad, he was able to embrace it more fully as it came to him in Jesus. In other words, Saul’s journey to becoming St. Paul was not a movement from falsehood to truth, but a transition from truth to truth. Process. Growth. Light.
In the book My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, the title character comes to a time in his life when he is able to integrate his past, particularly difficulties with his parental relationships, into a realization that all that had occurred, the good, the bad and the indifferent, had made him who he was. Once that awareness occurred he became grateful. He could see with new eyes. Or as the song says, “Falling in love is a brand new start.” It was a converting moment. Perhaps our call today is to cease kicking against our goads, whatever they may be, and embrace how they may be leading us to the now of encounter that leads us to a new future. It’s time to fall in love all over again.