After several days had passed, King Agrippa and Bernice arrived at Caesarea to welcome Festus. Since they were staying there several days, Festus laid Paul’s case before the king, saying,“There is a man here who was left in prison by Felix. When I was in Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me about him and asked for a sentence against him. I told them that it was not the custom of the Romans to hand over anyone before the accused had met the accusers face to face and had been given an opportunity to make a defence against the charge. So when they met here, I lost no time, but on the next day took my seat on the tribunal and ordered the man to be brought. When the accusers stood up, they did not charge him with any of the crimes that I was expecting. Instead they had certain points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain Jesus, who had died, but whom Paul asserted to be alive. Since I was at a loss how to investigate these questions, I asked whether he wished to go to Jerusalem and be tried there on these charges. But when Paul had appealed to be kept in custody for the decision of his Imperial Majesty, I ordered him to be held until I could send him to the emperor.”
Agrippa said to Festus,
“I would like to hear the man myself.”
“Tomorrow,” he said, “you will hear him.”
So on the next day Agrippa and Bernice came with great pomp, and they entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city. Then Festus gave the order and Paul was brought in. And Festus said,
“King Agrippa and all here present with us, you see this man about whom the whole Jewish community petitioned me, both in Jerusalem and here, shouting that he ought not to live any longer. But I found that he had done nothing deserving death; and when he appealed to his Imperial Majesty, I decided to send him. But I have nothing definite to write to our sovereign about him. Therefore I have brought him before all of you, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write— for it seems to me unreasonable to send a prisoner without indicating the charges against him.”
Agrippa said to Paul,
“You have permission to speak for yourself.”
Then Paul stretched out his hand and began to defend himself:
Paul stretched out his hand and began….As I read, reread and contemplated this passage my focus was repeatedly drawn to this clause and as I interrogated that internal response I wondered;
Why focus on the very end of the passage that we are exploring today?
Why indeed are we considering this sentence with today’s passage and not tomorrow?
Is there a liminality dynamic at work here?
Is this a formula pointing readers towards a deeper interpretation?
Indeed stretching out the hand was symbolic, it was a marker before a formal speech much like the town crier’s bell and “hear ye”, the MC’s gavel and “ladies and gentlemen” or even the fairy story’s “once upon a time”.
Paul’s use of the gesture here discloses him as an educated man one who is apparently at ease addressing the company gathered in the Caesarea audience hall. He does not seem to be daunted by the grandeur of the place or the collection of this most Roman of Judean town’s great and good alongside Agrippa and his entourage.
Festus we can see appears to be an honourable and responsible Governor neither washing his hands of his inherited prisoner nor failing to respect his predecessor’s approach and seems to be more than happy to consult Agrippa with his inherent knowledge of all things Jewish and of their interfacing with those following Christ. Perhaps he could tap into Agrippa’s insights in order to formulate an appropriate charge to be forwarded to Rome.
Paul clearly had the wit to navigate the legal system (his use of his right of appeal, as a Roman citizen, to the Emperor discloses this) and the ability to speak up for himself and so, I wondered, why had he allowed matters to escalate over a period of two years to risk this hand-stretching moment?
Might it be that it best suited his purpose, that playing the long game was of greater benefit to his goal than a quicker fix?
Paul was being held within the Governor’s palace and was privileged to receive visitors (including his companion Luke who was probably making use of the time afforded to write his accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry and of the acts of the apostles) this does not exactly equate to doing hard time. He therefore had had abundant opportunities to share the good news of the Christ and now after two years preparation time Paul stretched out his hand to preach the sermon of his life!
Proactive God God of all imagination Help us not to be an only reactive people but rather to see the value of looking ahead and choosing our moments for your mission. Give us Paul’s wit and ability to speak up, his patience to bide his time, recognising the pause as a gift from you, in order to make the moments count for you. AMEN
The Rev’d Helen M Mee is minister of Granton United Church in Edinburgh and Convenor of the Assembly Equalities Committee.