“Once ashore, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The local people showed us extraordinary kindness, for they lit a fire and took us all in, since it was raining and cold. As Paul gathered a bundle of brushwood and put it on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself to his hand. When the local people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man is probably a murderer, and though he has escaped the sea, Justice does not allow him to live! ” However, he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm. They expected that he would swell up or suddenly drop dead. But after they waited a long time and saw nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. Now in the area around that place was an estate belonging to the leading man of the island, named Publius, who welcomed us and entertained us hospitably for three days. Publius’s father was in bed suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went to him, and praying and laying his hands on him, he healed him. After this, the rest of those on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. So they heaped many honors on us, and when we sailed, they gave us what we needed.” (Acts 28:1-10 HCSB)
I was working from home last week, as were many of you, and my cell phone rang. I looked at it to see if it was a spam call or someone I knew. It happened to be a church member’s number, so I answered. He explained to me that he and his wife had gone to pick up another one of our friends, who is handicapped and confined to a wheelchair, and was taking him to lunch. They were just out for drive to relieve some of the boredom from the lockdown when the tire tread on one the van’s tires peeled off. They carefully made it to safe place to pull over and called to ask if I could come help, since I live just a few miles away.
When I arrived, another man had stopped to help them. As we worked on changing the tire, he talked about some of the personal struggles he had experienced lately and about how he hoped that stopping to help would give him some good “karma.” Here I am in the middle of rural Oklahoma and he’s talking about a Hindu/Buddhist religious concept. I don’t think he noticed, but I did a double-take. To be honest, in rural Oklahoma most folks would just say, “what goes around, comes around” or “you get what you give.” While there are certainly biblical principles that are similar to this idea, like you reap what you sow (Gal. 6:7), the overwhelming Biblical principle is grace. Today, I want to take a look at these ideas and how this story and other scripture speaks about the contrast between karma and grace and which one we really desire.
First, a little background information regarding our story and Paul’s circumstances. As you’ll recall, Paul and his companions have been in the midst of violent storm for many days. They had been making their way to Rome by way of Crete when they were caught in a “nor’easter” that drove them in a southwesterly direction and drove them onto a sandbar near Malta wrecking the ship and leaving them to swim for safety (see last week’s notes here). It appears to me that they must have headed northwest from Crete to stay closer to land and not sail in the dangerous open waters of the Mediterranean when they were hit by the storm and driven southwest towards Malta. On Malta, and island just south of Cicily, the traditional location of the shipwreck is called St. Paul’s Bay but the shoreline and sandbars would have changed significantly in two thousand years.
As the shipwreck victims make their way to shore, they encounter a group of locals. The word “locals” is “barbarians” in some translations which simply refers to the fact that they didn’t speak Greek and was not a comment on how they acted because they apparently treated them with uncommon or extraordinary kindness. Their kindness included building a fire and then taking them into their own homes and sheltering them from the storm. At first, you might wonder what was so extraordinary about their actions but the group had to shelter on Malta for the remainder of the winter before they could continue their journey to Rome.
In many ways, American culture has lost this same sense of hospitality over the last several decades. At one time, we were much more open and hospitable in our actions and with our homes. I can remember as a child, it was not uncommon for family members to come visit and stay for several days or even weeks. In fact, whenever our church would hold a revival service, our family would often host the evangelist or have him over for a meal. These days, not only would it be difficult to get a family to host the evangelist it is just as difficult to get them to attend revival services. While I am certain that there can be a host of factors that might lead to this type of behavior, one of those factors certainly seems to be a growing sense of individualism. While we should have a strong sense of individual worth and self esteem because we are each made in the image of God, we should never let it isolate us from the needs, cares and struggles of others.
What’s my point? It is simply that if “barbarians” or those outside of our own culture can show unusual kindness in a difficult situation, then surely we can show some kindness to one another during these difficult and challenging days. Even now, there seems to be an attempt to use our individual responses to the pandemic as a means of creating an “us versus them” and even a “liberal versus conservative” response mindset. We don’t need to contribute to these divisive ways. I think we are all just trying to find our way through a challenging maze of confusing and, often, conflicting directives even while the scientific and medical community tries to understand a virus threat that they still know very little about. It is extremely important to remember that the sole purpose of the social distancing and cultural lockdown procedures were NEVER intended nor capable of completely stopping the spread of this virus. These procedures were intended to “flatten the curve” and to keep our medical facilities and staff capable of handling the inevitable spread of the virus and its impact on our health.
Next, notice that when Paul gathers a bundle of sticks and begins to place them on the fire a snake comes out of the bundle and bites him. The snake latches onto Paul’s hand and Paul has to shake it off. Luke tells us that the snake is a viper but the word can really mean any kind of venomous snake. While it is noted that vipers do not currently live on Malta, it is possible and, perhaps, likely that the growing population and urbanization of the island has destroyed their habitat and numbers over the past two thousand years.
When Paul was bitten, the locals immediately surmise that Paul must have been a murderer and that even though he escaped the sea he cannot, ultimately, escape justice. What goes around, comes around. Karma. Justice. To put it in Okie vernacular: He got what was coming to him. So, they sit back and watch – waiting to see justice served… but nothing happens. He not only doesn’t fall over dead, his hand doesn’t even swell up and turn colors. Well, they must have been wrong about the murderer bit, so maybe he’s a god? How else can you explain the snake bite and no consequences?
Now, don’t give these local folks too much of a hard time. We do the same thing. I know you’re thinking that you don’t, but we all really do. We look at someone’s circumstances and we assume things about their character. But we really don’t just do this with circumstances surrounding others, we do it with our own circumstances. I have stood by the hospital bed of so many who make similar assumptions about their circumstances – Why God? what have I done to deserve this? We assume that our fortune or misfortune rises and falls with our moral standing with God. Do good things, God blesses and things go well. Do bad things, God takes those blessings away and we end up in a mess. Actually, I think we tend to reverse the thought process… bad things have happened, so I must have done something to upset God. When good things happen well, we were very deserving of them. God blessed us because we are such morally good people.
Yet, deep down we know that’s not true. In fact, we have often looked at someone who is doing quite well financially and wondered why because we know that they are as crooked as a bent nail. We’ve even watched those who are humble and obedient servants of God and have suffered through some unimaginable tragedy or disease. Even scripture laments the same thoughts, “You have said: “It is useless to serve God. What have we gained by keeping His requirements and walking mournfully before the Lord of Hosts? So now we consider the arrogant to be fortunate. Not only do those who commit wickedness prosper, they even test God and escape.” (Malachi 3:14-15 HCSB)
These are the very thoughts of the Psalmist in the 73rd Psalm and of Job’s friends in his lament. As Job suffered they insisted that he must have done something horrible to be in such a sad state of affairs. The Psalmist complains, “But as for me, my feet almost slipped; my steps nearly went astray. For I envied the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have an easy time until they die, and their bodies are well fed. They are not in trouble like others; they are not afflicted like most people.” (Psalms 73:2-5 HCSB)
But, Jesus responds this way: “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing out of the ordinary? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48 HCSB)
Our circumstances are not a reflection of our righteousness nor of our standing before a holy God and neither are the circumstances of our neighbors or enemies a reflection of their righteousness or unrighteousness. When things go badly, God isn’t necessarily reacting to some egregious sin in your life or their lives. Sometimes when things go badly it is simply because we made poor choices or acted foolishly. Other times, someone else may have made those poor choices or acted foolishly. I know, you want to react and say, “but God could’ve prevented or stopped it. Why didn’t He? Doesn’t He love me?” Of course He loves you and that’s precisely why He didn’t prevent or stop it. “What? That’s crazy.” Is it, really? God’s love is so deep for us that He has even given us the ability to rebel against and even reject Him and His love. Love that is coerced or given because of some perceived advantage is not love, at all.
That’s precisely the accusation that Satan made regarding Job: “Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? Haven’t You placed a hedge around him, his household, and everything he owns? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out Your hand and strike everything he owns, and he will surely curse You to Your face.” (Job 1:9-11 HCSB)
In essence, Satan says that Job only loves and obeys God because of God’s blessings in Job’s life. Satan accuses Job of unloving motives and says that if God took those things away then Job would curse God to His face. Let me ask you a tough question, how you would respond if the blessings were stripped away? Do you only serve God for what you get out of it? Don’t be too quick to respond, “of course not!” Salvation has been called “fire insurance” for a reason, and not necessarily for a good reason.
Let me take you back to my encounter when I was changing the flat tire. The man I met indicated that he had pulled over and helped because he needed some good “karma” to offset the bad things that had been happening in his life. He appeared to view god (yes, I intentionally made that one a little “g” because of the man’s views) as some cosmic force that would respond to his selfish attempts at manipulating its response. To be blunt, that sounds like Satan’s view of God and not the biblical view of God. It also sounds like the “locals” view of Paul’s circumstances, too, but it’s not how Paul views God and it’s not how I view God. In fact, I told the man that “I don’t believe in karma, but I do believe in God and I’ll be praying for you and that things get better for you.”
So, if God isn’t like karma (He only gives you what you deserve) then what is He like? Well, the rest of our focal passage actually focuses in on that very thing. If God was like karma then the chief’s father would simply suffer until he could do something worthy of changing his fate. Karma is an impersonal force that simply responds to our actions, good or bad and it’s a little difficult to change your fate when you’re lying in bed with a high fever and dysentery. Fortunately for us, God is personal and responds with love, grace and mercy. When Paul began to pray and lay his hand on Publius’s father then God responded by healing him.
Let me get straight to the point, we are all sick and dying like the chief’s father. Not from fever and dysentery or even some virus that jumped species and is now running rampant throughout our modern world, but from sin. We are all guilty of violating God’s laws in some way. There are those who like to argue that God surely wouldn’t condemn someone to hell for eternity for something as inconsequential as a lie. Let me say this very clearly, if you were only guilty of a single, inconsequential lie then I would agree… but you aren’t and neither am I. We are guilty of SO much more. When we make arguments like this, then we are seriously understating God’s righteousness and seriously overstating our own. To claim that you are only guilty of inconsequential sins is to ignore the claims and seriousness of the first and greatest commandment: love God with ALL of your heart, soul, mind and strength. Moses listed it this way: you shall have no other gods before ME.
Is it possible to live your life without breaking that commandment, in some way? If we were really honest, we’ve broken it in a MULTITUDE of ways. We have placed so many things or other people before God in our lives. We have NOT loved Him with everything that is in us, with all all of our heart, soul, mind and strength and that is the core of our sin and the very reason we need love, grace and God’s mercy. So, you and I aren’t guilty of just one, small, inconsequential sin. We are all guilty of the most egregious sin imaginable, loving something, someone, and even ourselves more than we love God. We all need to hear the message of healing that God sent, Jesus. While our focal passage doesn’t directly relate that Paul shared the gospel with the island’s inhabitants, there can be little doubt that he did so, especially in light of our previous studies related to Paul.
What is the message of the gospel? Basically, it’s that while we think we want “karma” or for God to give us what we deserve, that is simply an overstatement of our personal righteousness and understatement of God’s personal righteousness. As I just pointed out, the greatest commandment leads to the greatest and most egregious sin – the failure to love God above everyone and everything else. If we truly understood that, we would NEVER want karma or to receive what we deserve. Instead, we would be crying out for God’s mercy and forgiveness and that’s precisely the story that the Bible tells and that Christ came to address. We are all guilty of that most egregious of sins and, therefore, deserve God’s wrath and eternal punishment. However, God truly is loving and desires to redeem us from our slavery to sin. How? By giving Himself as the fulfillment of His own demands for a righteous sacrifice for our sin. Jesus is God in human flesh and He gave himself as that very sacrifice that was needed to satisfy His own righteous demands. All He seeks is your belief in Jesus as the Son of God and your trust in what He’s done on your behalf.
Paul puts it this way in his letter to the church at Ephesus: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:4-10 HCSB)
So, let me end by asking you one question… would you rather have karma (you get what you deserve) or would you rather experience the “immeasurable riches of His grace” through Jesus Christ? I can tell you that I don’t want karma, I want and desperately need God’s grace. How about you? Feel free to post your comments, questions or prayer needs in the comments section. Tell me about your experience of God’s grace.