God’s Goad

“Saul, Saul (…) It hurts you to kick against the goads.” I had to read that line several times, just to make sure it was saying what I thought it said. I asked myself: Why, in the middle of such a grandiose speech from on high, would God throw in such a colloquial, everyday expression, something right out of a farmer’s manual? A goad (I had to look it up, city boy that I am!) is a kind of prod, “…a spiked stick used to drive cattle,” my on-line dictionary says. If the animal resisted too much, it would tend to kick back, thus being invariably hurt by the sharp goad. A goad was used to keep cattle in line, keep them docile. When you transpose this image onto the religious realm, it can become problematic, theologically speaking. Or can it? What’s wrong, one might ask, with God goading us?

In the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, there are two large mural paintings by the 16th century Italian artist Caravaggio, a painter I especially admire. One is of the martyrdom of Saint Peter, who was crucified upside down. The other depicts the conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. This painting of Paul’s conversion is an awkward, though incredibly beautiful, work. The centre of focus is not the blinded apostle, but rather the horse from which he has presumably just fallen. This imposing animal occupies fully one-half of the picture, its massive flank and legs almost crushing the fallen rider. A seemingly uninterested assistant attempts to hold down the frightened animal. The heavenly light of conversion is reflected on the animal’s body, hitting Saint Paul lying flat on his back, his arms stretched heavenward, his legs parted and opened out, one knee upraised. His eyes are closed in an attitude of willful submission. The mouth, slightly opened, seems to speak words of supplication. Here is Paul—or more accurately, Saul—literally being overtaken (“ravished” is perhaps a better word) by the Christian god he has so fanatically and so systematically persecuted. Genius that he was, Caravaggio knew full well the subtle import of his visual image. Religious conversion is like an act of seduction: powerful, overwhelming, disorienting, and totally peculiar in its own way. It sets us down pathways at once familiar and disorienting.

This is the feast we celebrate today: the Conversion of St. Paul. When we think of conversion in our culture, we imagine a radical break with one’s past, or a drastic move from one religion to another, especially now when our political and military leaders appear obsessed with the supposedly nefarious consequences of any kind of religious conversion. We therefore tend to read Paul’s rather dramatic conversion that way: that he totally renounced his Jewish faith and turned without difficulty to the new Christian one. But that is too simplistic. In the entry for this day in For All the Saints, we are cautioned against such an interpretation: “…Paul placed himself in the company of the prophets of ancient Israel; and when he tried to say what had happened to him, he spoke in terms of a prophetical calling. So, it was not the revelation of another religion that Paul experienced. Instead, he experienced something which revealed the meaning and purpose of his whole life; and by this revelation of Christ, God also manifested the meaning and purpose of Paul’s Judaism. Paul was not responding to a demand that he deny Judaism and change his religion.” And so…pathways at once familiar and disorienting.

It makes sense, therefore, that the first reading for today should be the calling of the prophet Jeremiah. It places Paul’s conversion in a prophetic lineage, and it draws a close parallel between the two individuals. I’ve always liked the story of Jeremiah’s call. It shows God’s tender side: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations. (…) Do not be afraid (…) for I am with you to deliver you.” Despite his uncertainty, Jeremiah is called to a prophetic role, as is Paul—indeed, God has called them both from even before they were born—and God makes it abundantly clear that Jeremiah will not be left to his own devices. Neither will Paul. The instructions to both prophets are quite precise: to Jeremiah, God talks of ‘plucking up’ and of ‘planting,’ among other things; Paul’s mandate is perhaps less dramatic-sounding. The passage talks more succinctly of “…to serve and testify.” Still, that’s a rather tall order. As we knew from our history of the early church, Paul will fulfill that mandate with the utmost seriousness, dedication and success.

And so, we must understand conversion differently: not as something which totally rejects our past, but as an experience which completes our life. There is more continuity than not in conversion. In a way, the act of conversion—what is so often called “a change of heart”—opens us up to the fuller meaning of our own existence in God. It brings us, as it were, to where we should have always been. Paul’s own life demonstrates this. He could not have “opened up” the emerging Christian faith, and made it universal in its import, without first being grounded in his own tradition of Judaism. In a way that’s exactly what happened on the road to Damascus. God reminded Paul of his faith, hence the image of the goad. Paul was hurting himself by kicking against it. We do know that Paul’s faith was ultimately called to change—and to change the world in the process—but he first needed to be re-grounded in it. In fact, it was in and through that faith that he would come to imagine something different. Something new, yes, but also something borrowed.

Western culture encourages us to see ourselves as constantly capable of re-invention, as though we were a project to be completed. There can be a sense of self-empowerment in that, but it can also uproot us needlessly. It can pull us away from our essential purpose, our God-given mandate. That, of course, is a life-long process of discovery; perhaps refinement is a better word. Sometimes, we want to change, to convert, simply for the thrill of the experience. That process, however, can be risky. We can lose something if we’re not careful. We can lose our heart.

Which is why goading can be a good theological counter-measure to a sense of undue risk and loss. There are a bunch of synonyms for goading as a verb, and these are generally more positive terms: to encourage, prod, incite, urge, provoke, rouse, motivate, inspire and so forth. Not bad ways to describe what God does to us. Rather good ways, actually, to understand the dynamics and compelling power of our faith, and the ways we are called to live it out in the sight of God.

But a goad still remains an instrument of discipline, something used by the master to keep her or his charges in line. By using this image, Jesus tells Paul on the road to Damascus: stop hurting yourself; stop kicking against me; let yourself go; heed my directions, and you won’t hurt yourself; accept my yoke, for it is easy. “Saul, Saul…it hurts you to kick against the goads.” This is a good and necessary spiritual message for us to hear. It can help frame the blurred and perhaps messy contours of our faith, and further deepen its substance.

We may not like the idea of being constricted like this, subject to goading by someone else, even if that someone else happens to be God. Yet, submit we must. This is exactly what St. Paul did. From his submission came his liberation, freeing him to follow his true calling, opening him up to the vast projects and possibilities God had in store for him. From his submission emerged a new way of life and of belief that continues to provide meaning for us and for countless others. What will come from our submission to God’s goad? Will we too create the world anew?

God’s Goad—25 January 2015—Acts 26: 9-18

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