By Lindy Ryan
The epistle reading from Acts on October 8 is one of those stories that rings kind of true even though it supposedly happened 2000 years ago. It rings true because it is pointing out something that we still deal with today, and that’s the beauty of the Bible. We can draw parallels from what we read to what we experience and where they meet we form our position, look at our culture, and plan our actions. The actions in the reading were taken by a man named Festus, and the indirect actor was the Apostle Paul. The cultures of both Jerusalem and Rome had a bearing, as did the traditions of each and dictated the action.
Paul been accused by the Jews in Jerusalem of high crimes deserving death, but Festus, a Roman official, told them that they were not going to put Paul to death because he had done nothing that deserved that kind of punishment. Of course, the elders and priests of the Jews were not happy about this, so Festus did what any good Western Marshall would do under the circumstances, and got the heck outta Dodge, taking Paul with him. Paul had appealed to the Roman Emperor for judgment, and it was Festus’ job to get him there.
Enter King Agrippa and Bernice. They heard what Festus had told them, but they wanted to hear for themselves what this Paul was saying that caused so much hatred and such a strong desire for his execution. Festus had a good line of reasoning when he said “… [B]ut I found out that he had done nothing deserving death and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty I decided to send him.” Having King Agrippa and Bernice as his hosts gave Festus an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. In his appeal to the King, Festus stated, “…[B]ut I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I am I have brought him before he all of you, especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write for it seems to be unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”
That last line that got my attention. I read a story online a day or so ago about a man incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, yet the one man who could set him free refused to do so. This isn’t the only case where innocent people languished in jail because justice was not done. Prisoners are convicted, but sometimes the evidence is mishandled, or testimony is perjured, or the person is inconvenient, somehow, to the community.
That was Paul’s crime, talking about the risen Jesus, the Messiah who rose from the dead, which just about everyone with any common sense in those days knew was totally impossible. It seemed that way to the Romans, but Jesus was no longer giving them problems, if indeed he ever had. It was the high priest and the elders in Jerusalem that were most bothered by Paul’s assertions. It went against all Jewish teachings about death, and also managed to hit a lot of the laws about blasphemy as well.
Was Paul innocent? Maybe not. But was his crime one that should cause his execution? While we are asking, how about Jesus? He was not guilty of the crimes he was accused of and he got executed in the most public and demeaning way. Think, though, about sitting in jail, not knowing what fate will hand you, knowing you are innocent but seemingly unable to convince others that you truly are. After all, just about every prisoner in jail swears they are innocent — and in our cynical age, we don’t believe any of them, even the ones who really are.
I think about groups who work on cold cases, looking into the evidence that convicted people and examining it using new technology and new science to determine the truth that had been hidden, or covered up. It seems to me that whether or not those groups are Christian, they do exemplify what Micah spoke of, “… [D]o justice, love mercy…” They may not think of the people they serve as children of God, but they think of them as people needing help, people in trouble, and deserving of the best defense they can get, to be believed until they are proven 100% guilty.
A lot of people will say that the prisoners deserved what they got, but looking at the rate of innocent people who have been found, it’s a little hard to paint everyone with a very broad brush. We are taught that through our faith we are to forgive, and we are to love justice, not just expediency for some. Paul was depending on justice, just as most of the people in our prisons are depending on justice, yet many are not getting it. Their color, their race, their orientation, even the nature of their crime, puts them in a hierarchy that is more like Dante’s seven circles of hell than it is a Pilgrim’s progress toward redemption.
Festus was unwilling to abandon Paul to the executioners when he had: (a) appealed to Rome for justice, and (b) Festus wasn’t convinced that the charges were correct and even proven. “Tell me what to write,” he asked King Agrippa. “Tell me if the charges seem reasonable enough to send to the Emperor along with the prisoner.” At least Paul had someone to speak or him, unlike Jesus who had to undergo it all by himself.
There are victims of our justice system who inhabit our jails and prisons, accused and convicted by false evidence, incomplete investigations, or even because they are inconvenient, like Paul and Jesus. That does not mean we should turn our backs when someone acts as a Festus and attempts to find the truth, even if he has to do some digging to do it.
Imagine if you were in jail for something you didn’t do. Wouldn’t you want someone to help you? I’m sure Jesus would have, and I have a feeling that Paul was grateful for the help he received. We want mercy for ourselves — but we are often very slow or very busy trying to avoid giving mercy to others.
Think about it. To whom should we extend the mercy we ourselves hope to get? To Paul? To Jesus? To a total stranger who claims innocence? Where does judgment come in? Where is our responsibility? And who will be our Festus?
For information on The Innocence Project, see their website here.
Image: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons