Tuesday, May 3, 2016


Homily for May 4th, 2016: Acts 17:15, 22-18:1.

          St. Paul normally began his preaching with appeals to Holy Scripture – for him the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. The New Testament books were not written until after Paul’s death. Paul’s letters and accounts of his preaching in the Acts of the Apostles contain numerous examples of his Scripture based preaching. Paul’s address reported in our first reading today is an exception to this rule. He is in Athens, the center, in Paul’s world, of learning and sophisticated culture. What the Athenians knew about the Jewish Scriptures was comparable to what most of us know about the Koran: next to nothing.

          So Paul tries a different approach this time. He starts not with Scripture but with the actual situation in Athens, with its many temples to numerous gods and goddesses. This is an example of his becoming “all things to all people,” about which Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians (9:22). Paul begins then: “I see you are very religious.”  That is called, in rhetoric, a captatio benevolentiae: capturing the hearers’ attention and goodwill with benevolence or kindness – in this case with flattery. Referring to all the temples which he sees on the hill Areopagus in the center of Athens, Paul says that one in particular has caught his eye, because of the inscription it bears: “To an Unknown God.” The Athenians who erected it obviously wanted to cover all the bases.

          “What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you,” Paul says. This Unknown God is the one who created all that is, he continues. He has come down to us in the person of a man named Jesus, whom he raised from the dead. The mention of resurrection causes some to scoff. Everyone knows that is absurd: when you’re dead, you’re dead. Others react more politely, but still with condescension: “We’d like to hear more about this – just not now. Another day, perhaps.”

          Some, however, accept Paul’s message, and become believers. One is obviously a man of importance: a member of the Court of the Areopagus. Another is a woman of whom we know only her name, Damaris. Paul’s attempt to “become all things to all people” seems have had only modest success. It is a picture of the Church’s evangelism in every age. As in Jesus’ parable of the sower and his seed: despite the waste of so much of the farmer’s efforts, “some seed falls on good ground and produces a rich harvest, at a rate of thirty- and sixty- and a hundredfold.” (Mark 4:8).