I’ve always found it interesting that many scriptural scholars seem to consider Paul’s visit to Athens to be a failure. Indeed, last night I checked several different commentaries and some actually use the word “failure” when discussing the event we heard described in today’s first reading from Acts. To justify their opinion that Paul had failed, they highlight the fact that as a result of his visit only a handful of Athenians were converted to Christianity.
Several made excuses for Paul, claiming he really wasn’t equipped intellectually to deal with the Athenians. Greece, they argue, was the birthplace of philosophy and its people were well educated not only in philosophy, but in the sciences as well. Converting them would be a significant challenge for anyone; but for Paul, a provincial Jew…well, he was probably in way over his head.
When I read things like this, I come away amazed at the intellectual arrogance of so many of today’s so-called scholars. It’s almost as if they are saying, “Well, if only Paul had been educated like me, he might have had more success.” We hear a lot of that these days, seemingly based on a kind of temporal bigotry, the idea that we who live in the 21st century must certainly be smarter than those first-century rubes. Look at us, we have universities and think tanks and computers and iPads and the New York Times. And what did they have? Not much.
I also suspect more than a few of today’s scholars relate more closely to the Athenian philosophers than to Paul. To their way of thinking, Paul failed because he tried to address them as another philosopher, and obviously they saw through the charade. The trouble is, by belittling Paul they lose sight of what he actually managed to accomplish in Athens.
Did Paul misread the philosophers’ idle curiosity as sincere interest? Perhaps. But more likely, Paul believed that philosophers could be converted only by taking a philosophical approach. Paul was no stranger to Greek thought and argument. He was, after all, a citizen of “no mean town” as he called his hometown, Tarsus. Tarsus was a thoroughly Hellenized community in Asia Minor – a center of culture, philosophy and education, a center of Stoic and Epicurean philosophy in the Eastern Empire. Even though he boasted of his Jewish and Pharisaic roots, and of his instruction by Gamaliel, he could write and speak Greek well and was a Roman citizen from birth. If not himself Hellenized, he was reasonably well versed in Greek culture.
And so Paul’s “philosophical” approach in Athens was not necessarily out of character. On the contrary, given his background and his unique audience, he’d be wise to address the Athenians on their own terms. That we never see him using this approach again means only that he was disappointed in the results or he never again met a similar audience. And yet, did Paul really fail in Athens because he converted only a few?
Well, if we believe that we must believe Jesus to be a failure as well. After all, during His ministry Jesus preached to tens of thousands and yet in the end only 120 loyal followers gathered in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. No, the Holy Spirit was there at Pentecost and the Holy Spirit was with Paul in Athens.
Paul knew there was a wide gap between his desire to convert everyone and the results he achieved. But he never despaired. He never believed He had failed. To do so would be to accuse the Holy Spirit of failure. Paul failed in Athens only if “some” conversions constitute failure. But that would be second-guessing the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t it? For in Athens, the Holy Spirit, working through Paul, did exactly what Jesus in today’s Gospel said He would do:
“…the Spirit of truth…will guide you to all truth. He will not speak on his own, but he will speak what he hears…He will glorify me…and declare it to you.”This, brothers and sisters, is why we should always be open to the Spirit, letting Him guide us in all things. Through the Holy Spirit, we proclaim our ancient faith in the saving death and resurrection of Christ until he comes again. The Lord gives us his Holy Spirit as our divine Teacher and Helper so we can grow in the knowledge and wisdom of God.
It is also why we should never despair when it seems those we love do not respond to God’s Word. The Spirit works in His own time and His own way. As proof of this, consider that one of those few conversions that day was Dionysius, a man that tradition tells us became the first bishop of Athens…hardly a failure, and a pretty good catch for Paul, the tentmaker turned fisher of men.