The story goes that, once upon a time, the king of the gods, Zeus, and Hermes his messenger visited ancient Phrygia. They go from home to home, seeking hospitality, but as they’re disguised in human form, no-one’s interested in letting them into their home for the night.
All except a poor, elderly couple, Philemon and Baucis, who scrape together a meal for their visitors, but can’t help noticing that, no matter how much food is consumed, it never seems to run out. They realise that they’ve been entertaining gods unawares and, as a reward, they’re told to leave town for a while. Because Zeus is going to turn their tatty little cottage into a temple, but not before destroying the rest of the town for its lack of hospitality…
The story of Baucis and Philemon first appeared in Metamorphoses by the poet Ovid in 6AD, and while there may not be a direct connection, it might help give some background to something that happens in Acts 14.
Paul and Barnabas have been carrying out a missionary journey, and they arrive in Lystra. Pretty much immediately they meet a crippled man, who Paul heals (incidentally, this seems to parallel Peter and John healing another lame man in Acts 3, and so the former church-persecutor Paul’s credentials are established).
It’s at that point that things go a little crazy.
The townsfolk see the healing and immediately assume that it was possible because Barnabas was Zeus (which is interesting, because we always assume that Paul was the clear leader) and that Paul was Hermes (which makes sense, because he was the talker). And, maybe because they were thinking of stories like Ovid’s, where a lack of hospitality towards the gods leads to catastrophe, they want to start offering sacrifices to the two Christians. The chief priest of the temple of Zeus outside the city must have thought it was, well, whatever the ancient Greek version of Christmas was.
Now, the townsfolk are speaking a local dialect, not general Greek, and so it takes Paul and Barnabas a while to catch on to what’s happening. When they do, they’re horrified – they rip their clothes (a sign of horror and sorrow), and they try to convince the crowd that a) the two of them are only human, and b) that they should worship God. It only just works, and maybe because they’ve been a little clumsy in the whole thing, local troublemakers stir up the crowd against them – Paul is stoned, surviving but getting out of there the next day.
There’s a lesson here for preachers, of course – know your audience, be prepared, don’t get cocky – but when I read the story, the first thing that came to mind was celebrity culture.
Yes, I know that’s a bit tenuous, but look at what happens – one minute Paul and Barnabas are feted as gods, regardless of the fact that they never wanted or intended for that to happen. People are throwing themselves at their feet, offering sacrifices… They’re not messing about.
And yet, within what seems to be a few hours, it’s all changed. Paul has said the ‘wrong’ thing, a couple of people have stirred up trouble, and the next thing you know, Paul has received a stoning. It’s nasty, destructive, and it gets in the way of people meeting with God.
Applicable for today?