Stigma Isn’t Guilt

Phil Christman

Read: Acts 28

They said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer.” (v. 4)

Paul showed up in Rome after many adventures, only to find that local religious authorities hadn’t even heard of the controversy surrounding him. Acts closes with Paul under house arrest. But first, a short episode (vv. 1-11) shows us a deep-seated pattern in human behavior, and also the Bible’s characteristic response to that pattern.

The kindly Maltese were probably already inclined to believe that Paul, like the other prisoners who had washed ashore with him, was potentially dangerous. When a snake attacked Paul, it seemed to confirm their suspicions. We want to believe that “bad” people “get what they deserve.” Then when Paul shook off any fatal effect, the islanders deified him. This is the other side of the coin: we are always quick to believe in the supernatural goodness of those who defy misfortune. Both responses come from our desire to think both good and bad outcomes can be controlled by our behavior. By showing these assumptions being applied to a man who had constantly flung attention away from himself and onto his Lord, and who once called himself the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), the text points up their absurdity.

Like the islanders, we tend to view prisoners either as threatening evildoers or mistreated innocents. What they are is people, windblown and beaten by life, whom God has called us to visit in their distress. —Phil Christman

Prayer: Lord, make us willing to befriend the needy, even when they bear the stigma of guilt.