In the 24th chapter of Acts, Paul is yet again brought up to face those who would accuse him. He is no longer before the Sanhedrin, having been remanded into the custody of the Roman governor. Effectively removed from the jurisdiction of the high priest, he still is forced to stand before authority, this time in the person of Governor Felix. There is something in the text that provokes: the faction accusing Paul arrive where is he being kept in order to press their case...with a lawyer named Tertullus.
Tertullus' job is not only to represent the concerns (and the agenda) of the faction; he is also to persuade the governor to decide Paul's fate in favor of his accusers. This is not due process. No sworn testimony, as we understand the concept, is given. No evidence of Paul's sedition is offered, other than rhetoric and hearsay. Still, Paul is in dire straits.
That is the trouble with accusations: if the accusers are loud enough and consistent in their finger-pointing, and if they are persistent, then the favored result if often obtained. It is a simple, and time-honored, strategy. It worked against Jesus, and led to his crucifixion. It has worked against many throughout human history. Paul's trial before the Roman governor is just one more chapter in the story.
What is notable about this chapter? Felix is a bit craftier than Pilate was...in that he is familiar with the Way, and the dissent that its growth was causing in the Temple culture. He was also not willing to activate Rome's power in the service of the accusers' agenda. Finally, he knew he had to tread carefully, for Paul's Roman citizenship afforded him certain rights. Roman law, in this instance, trumps local conflict. That is what saves Paul's hash, that something we might recognize as due process attaches to his case. All it earns him is prolonged house arrest; but at least he is able to avoid being beaten or stoned to death by the followers of Ananias. The smooth rhetoric of Tertullus fails.
Psalm 109 has the psalmist in the position of being accused. For the Lord's sake, the singer is facing rejection at the hands of those who hold him in contempt. The appeal is that God's justice be asserted, that God will intervene on behalf of the accused and bring appropriate judgment and retaliation down on the heads of the accusers. It is a hoped for happy ending, that the unjust be caught out and that the unjustly accused be vindicated. What catches at my heart is the image the accused uses to petition for God's intervention: to let the accusers marinate in their own vitriol and that their own poisonous words and intent seep into their bones like oil. As well, the hope is that the accused will know God's protection and mercy:
Since he wore curses like a coat, let them seep inside him like water, seep into his bones like oil. Let them be like the clothes he wears, like a belt that is always around him...Let my accusers be dressed in shame; let them wear their disgrace like a coat. But I will give great thanks to the Lord with my mouth; among a great crowd I will praise God! Because God stands right next to the needy, to save them from any who would condemn them.The take-away from this morning's readings? Be cautious...even refrain from...making accusations to kinds of accusations noted above. They lead only to loss and sorrow for all. Naming sin and claiming responsibility is of God...pointing fingers and character assassination is not of God. The challenge we have to embrace is to let the practice of accusing in order to expulse a person be anathema; and that justice be not only a goal, but also the way of our lives. That sort of reconciliation is not an easy thing to accomplish, when it is much easier to accuse and condemn. It is a lesson the church, and humanity, is required to relearn in each generation.