Unforgiven

I love the story of Paul’s conversion, his encounter with Jesus while he is riding to Damascus with warrants in his hands to persecute the church. I love that Saul is struck blind and is left to be cared for by the very same people he came to persecute. (I love this so much it’s the subject of a short story I wrote that was included in this anthology.)

This story is, I think, the gold standard of conversion stories, of meeting Jesus and having one’s life changed utterly and completely. Luke tells it once, in Acts 9:1–19, and then has Paul tell the story twice — in his testimony to soldiers (and others) who have detained him (and have apparently mistaken Paul for an Egyptian rebel) Acts 22 and then later, with a few additional details not in Luke’s telling, to King Agrippa in Acts 26.

And there’s an interesting detail I never noticed was missing from the story before:

Jesus never forgives Saul.

Never.

In all versions, Jesus simply calls Saul, and then instructs him where he will go and what he will do. He tells Ananias more, that Saul has been chosen to preach to the gentiles, and that he will suffer much for “the sake of my name.” When Paul relates his story to King Agrippa, when he preaches the Gospel, he speaks of forgiveness, not for himself, but for the “gentiles” (εθνος):

14 And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. ’ 15 And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord? ’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, 17 delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness [ἄφεσιν] of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:14–18 ESV)

Forgiveness — ἄφεσιν — literally remission, setting free, discharge of debts, a letting go, or a dismissal. The gentiles, the people who are not Israel, are to receive this. Because Israel has received it too.

But Christ did not say to Saul, “I forgive you.” Christ simply calls him, on the assumption that once called, Saul would have no choice — no choice — but to follow.

Just as Peter and Levi and the other disciples followed when Jesus called. Peter falls at Jesus’ feet (Luke 5:8) and confesses both his sinfulness and his unworthiness. “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Jesus does not reply with “you are forgiven,” but instead says

“Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

There is much talk of forgiveness in Luke and Acts, but as with Paul’s writings, it seems to focus mostly on how to live as Christians together. Only twice does Jesus actually forgiven anyone in Luke-Acts.  The first is the paralytic in Luke 5 who is lowered down through a hole in the roof by his friends, and then in an oddly passive voice. “Man, your sins are forgiven you,” which then prompts an argument from Pharisees hanging out with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus proclaims he has authority on earth to forgive sins (Luke 5:24) as well as command the paralyzed to walk — to set them free.

Second, from the cross, Jesus prays for those killing him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

In Luke, Jesus speaks mostly of the mutuality of forgiveness — forgive each other, forgive others as God forgives you, and forgive your brother and your neighbor as often as needed.

Still, I find it odd that Jesus doesn’t forgive Saul. After all, Saul is off to Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He understands the need to be forgiven, and he knows that Christ does forgive sin.

The call itself is, I think, forgiveness. It is a freeing, a dismissal, a letting go — of old lives that had little meaning and less purpose. Of lives that were devoted to pointless and brutal toil, of lives devoted to a stale and violent law. Saul didn’t have to be told he was forgiven — he understood from the moment he was struck blind, from the moment Jesus spoke to him, took control of his life and commanded him, that he was forgiven. No words were necessary. No words were capable.

He was no longer his own. He belonged to Christ, to be used as Christ saw fit for ends only Jesus could make sense of. There is no understanding, no experience, of forgiveness greater than that.

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