A Bible Story: A Fellow Prisoner With Paul - Reflections By A Roman Imprisoned with Saul of Tarsus/Paul
If we could have listened in, what would we have heard?
Imagining what Paul might have talked about while a prisoner....
He said he was a tentmaker and a look at his hands told me that, in contrast to other prisoners in jail with us, this one was apparently telling the truth.
He was short and already aging, probably prematurely so. I asked the natural question one asks another person in our circumstances: "What did you do to win this free housing and lousy food? Cheat someone with too few stitches to hold a tent flap together?"
He smiled a benign smile and settled into a storytelling mood. I could see this would be an entertaining companion while we might both be prisoners in our despicable setting.
"Actually I am here as a matter of conscience," he said.
I replied that his conscience had treated him poorly; better a free tentmaker, than a too public philosopher.
His quality of speech showed education, but his accent suggested that he probably came from a distant corner of the Empire as implied by his sandals and the coarse fabric of his toga.
"You see I used to deride the beliefs and dictates of consciense of others, and now my own beliefs, and the dictates of my conscience, have been questioned by others in power."
"Others in power? What power did you claim as a tentmaker?"
"Enough for my own needs and for any righeous authority such as you yourself may one day need."
I thought I was perhaps mistaken, and that this man was crazed. His scars of some past beatings could indicate a man who couldn't find the Forum, if it were pointed out to him.
So, I inquired, "Authority is authority, isn't it? Righteous authority is a whim of the gods. What is righteous today was a crime yesterday, and may be a crime again tomorrow. There is one law for the rich and powerful, and no law at all for the slaves and the poor whose sons are pressed into the army in the middle of harvest. How do you define 'righteous authority?'"
"Righteous authority is authority which comes from God and is used righteously."
"Ahh, my friend, but from which god? From Jupiter, perhaps, or Diana, Bachus, Janus? We have forty, and the Greeks have even more. Perhaps there are still more where you come from?"
"There is only one."
"Oh, then you are a Jew from Palestine?"
"I am born a Roman like you, and a Jew, but God is the same everywhere, and for everyone."
"That is like saying Jupiter is Zeus, and Zeus is Jupiter. But what of all the others?"
He replied, "If one god is all-powerful and all-knowing; if he is everywhere, including inside you, what need is there for other gods?"
"Is he your god, and is he inside you?"
"Then are you also all-powerful?"
"I am as to my role, as it is in harmony with His teachings, and what is best for all His children past, present, and future."
"Have you ever seen this god?"
"I have seen His power, and I have seen His son."
"Then you don't have just one god. You have your god, and you have your god's son. Surely he is a god, too!"
"His son taught that men should pray to his Father who is the father of us all, and the son taught us the teachings of his Father. When those closest to the son asked when the end of the world should come, he replied that only his Father knows."
"Was your god's son 'all-powerful.' too?"
"He had righteous authority given to him by his Father."
"How powerful was he, this son of your god?"
"Would it be powerful, if he could heal a cripple?"
"Yes, but we have those who can do so, and they can be as evil as any man. Surely they are not gods, though they have some power from Aesculapius the god of healing."
"Would it be powerful, if he could heal a leper?"
"I have heard it said that some few claim to have done so."
"Would it be powerful, if he could restore sight to a blind person?"
"Some have regained lost sight."
"Would it be powerful, if he restored the sight of someone who was blind at birth, and remained blind into his adulthood?"
"That would surely be powerful, if it is true."
"Would it be powerful, if he restored life to a dead man?"
'That would be powerful, but I would have to see it myself to believe it really happened."
"Would it be powerful, if we were given freedom to leave this prison tonight without the permission of our jailers?"
"Ahh, now you are talking about power that is powerful! When do we leave?"
"I can see you are ready to believe, if such power is used to affect you directly in some way you can understand, see, touch, smell, or hear. But, if I were to tell you that I and others have been freed in just such a way from other prisons, could you believe such power is as real as if it had happened to you, instead of to me?"
"Has that indeed happened to you, and, if so, why are you now still in custody?"
"Yes. In fact my companion and I were jailed in Philippi and a powerful earthquake struck and opened a way from the inner jail, even loosing us from our stocks. It cleared a way for us to flee. Our jailer was all ready to kill himself thinking we had fled!"
"Is that why you were caught again and sent to be held here?"
"No. In fact, in that instance we did not flee, but told the jailer we were okay and were still staying in the jail. He was so thankful that he considered even the fact that we stayed to be a miracle."
"He fed us well at his own quarters. He and all his family listened to us as you do now, and they believed what we taught them, and acceped to live righteous lives. Then we waited at the jail where, after originally being beaten, we had first been imprisoned."
"How then were you released?"
"The following day senior people came and told the jailer to release us, but we refused to leave."
"What fools! You refused to leave?"
"Yes, you see, Silas and I are both Romans. The magistrates in Philippi had no authority to beat and imprison us, as they had done."
"Ahh, I see. Now they were in your control!"
"One might say so, but , if there is a God who loves us and is concerned about us (and you believe there are forty or more!), then I prefer to believe that one all-powerful God has the ultimate control. The alternative is an unpredictable universe wherein some gods do one thing, other gods do an opposite, and they may or may not find a quorum to decide what the majority want to do
"Well, what finally happened?"
"The magistrates came and begged us to leave the jail and the city. We visited the believers, thanked our hostess, thanked our God, and continued our travels."
"You could have caused the magistrates a great deal of trouble, and you simply walked away thankful?"
"Yes. God's son taught us to forgive our enemies and to avoid judging others. God is the final judge, and He will forgive us our faults as we grow and learn to look beyond the faults of others. Only god's son, of all mankind, has ever lived a life without fault."
"Where is god's son now?"
"He has returned to his father, leaving us who are baptized to carry on his work by teaching others the father's teachings which he taught us. By doing so, we live so that he may not have lived without improving the lives of men, women, and children wherever they may be."
"How then can his teachings improve my life? Look at me, falsely accused by a powerful family, and awaiting a judgment which I feel certain will not be justice. Only the gods can intervene on my behalf, or I am doomed to suffer; and my family will become like unto a body without a head."
"I cannot predict what other men will do, or what God may do through them. But I can assure you that my God knows you and knows your heart. He has a place for you in his kingdom, and you and your family can be together forever there with God."
"What is required of me?"
"Only to allow me to teach you what God wants you to know, and how he wants you to live your life. Then what is required of you is that you live in harmony with God, forgiving your enemies, loving your neighbors as you love yourself, and having no other gods in your life. When you understand how this can change your life for good, we will help you to enter the waters of baptism and be cleansed of all your past imperfections, and made ready to live life as God's son lived his. Do so, and you can return to live with God just as his son has done."
"Tell me more."
And Saul of Tarsus did.