Originally scheduled for August 16
One of the points of pride in the Roman Empire was that a country,
conquered by the Romans, would now have a sense of justice — indeed
a system of justice — that wasn’t there before. In this passage, the
pagans on Malta exhibit such a sense of justice.
At first, Paul is just a poor innocent shipwreck victim. Along with
the others from his ship, the Maltese build a fire for them.
No doubt it was a simple, but very welcome, form of charity.
But then the snake bites. These people would be accustomed to the
idea that justice would not allow a murderer to live — and therefore
Paul was bitten by the snake so that justice might be done. Nature
was often seen as delivering the justice of the gods. This is very
similar to what the friends of Job told him about his problem: the
reason you are afflicted is that you are a secret sinner. In short,
they think Paul deserved it.
When the snake falls off into the fire, and Paul is unharmed, they
change their mind. Since he didn’t die, he must be innocent. The
innocent sufferer is then presumed to be a god. It’s not something
they see as “just natural causes.”
Suffering, in a sense, is a form of trial by combat. It’s you versus
what can go wrong in this world. Suffering exposes the guilty.
Remember Job’s friends? They urged him to confess and repent because
they assumed he was guilty of some secret sin. Their argument was
that there was no sense in denying it, the suffering had exposed
But what happens when you discover that the sufferer is innocent?
What happens when somebody starts to ask, “what did she ever do to
deserve that?” We are quick in that instance to say that the
suffering is from God, and it is for his purposes. When we conclude
that the person is innocent and suffering, our attitude changes
greatly. Such suffering provokes our great sympathy and raises the
question, “why?” The
common answer is that the innocent suffer for some divine purpose
decreed by God.
The ultimate example of the innocent sufferer is Jesus Christ. In
his case the suffering is worse because it was imposed by the
judicial system of the time. That’s the very same system that the
people on Malta would’ve told you was a great idea. An idea of how
this innocent suffering affects people may be gained from Attila the
Hun. Yes, I know he’s not exactly an example of moral philosopher,
but you might want to hear his reaction to being told that the
innocent Christ had been executed:
“If I and my men had been there, they would not have dared!”
In your own case, think of your reaction if an innocent man is
executed by our criminal justice system. There is nothing you can do
about it at this point, but your reaction is the such a thing should
not happen. You are — or should be — outraged.
Consider then the memorial in front of you. The bread you are about
to partake represents the body of an innocent man who died for the
express purpose of being your substitute. He got what you deserve.
The cup is the symbol of his innocent blood, dripping in great drops
from his body, so that you might be forgiven. The Innocent One died
so that you might live. Let your sense of justice inform you this
morning as you partake of the body and blood of Christ. It is
outrageous that the innocent should die; especially in place of
those who are guilty. Remember, then, we are the guilty. It is
outrageous; outrageous love.