I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
Paul’s on trial in Caesarea, the coastal province he often passes through, answering earlier charges brought by former religious allies. For two years, he's sat in prison awaiting a verdict from the governor, who recently left office without rendering one. When the new governor, Festus, arrives, here come Paul’s enemies, asking his trial be moved to Jerusalem. (They plan to murder him en route.) Festus denies the request. After Paul’s accusers cite a list of religious infractions, Festus sees they have no legal case. He offers a trial in Jerusalem to throw them a bone. In return, Paul throws a curve. He invokes his right of appeal to Caesar. Festus binds him over for the next ship to Rome.
The following day, Agrippa, Palestine's king, visits Festus. Hearing about the case, he asks to meet Paul. It’s likely Agrippa knows Paul and almost certain Paul knows Agrippa, whose education steeped him in Hellenic culture. When they meet, Paul introduces himself as a former Pharisee, saying any Jew will vouch for this. Since sectarian clashes are old news to Agrippa, though, Paul highlights an interesting facet of his conversion. On the way to root out Christians in Damascus, a bright light floors him and his companions. A voice calls in Aramaic—the local tongue—asking him to explain his behavior. The voice (Christ’s) quotes a proverb made famous by Aeschylus and Euripides: “It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” Greek wisdom lodged in a Jewish vision piques Agrippa’s attention. The king ends their conversation totally convinced of Paul’s innocence, if not his God.
Given the king’s sophistication, witnesses in the story, and Paul’s integrity, it’s facetious to imagine he adds the proverb for effect. We’re smarter, I think, to assume Christ quotes the Greeks. This raises pertinent questions: what does “kicking against the goads” signify and why does Paul stress hearing it in Aramaic? (He speaks and writes Greek fluently.) Examining the quote reveals some enlightening nuances.
In predominately rural societies like Palestine, goads were common objects—lengthy rods to prod stalled plough oxen. When a farmer nudged his ox’s hindquarters, it often kicked back. Urban cultures like Rome and Athens that prized learning above labor reconceived the goad as a metaphor for a teacher’s authority. A know-it-all student rebelling against his master wasted everyone’s time. Intellectual superiority gave the teacher the upper hand and the student’s senseless resistance only made it harder for him. By quoting the Greek proverb in Aramaic, Jesus combines the rural and urban implications to show Paul (then Saul) a few unpleasant things about himself.
The Aramaic/rural context says Paul thinks he’s gaining when he’s actually stalled. There’s groundbreaking work for him to do. Paul’s anti-Christian campaign amounts to bovine hostility and the proverb suggests he’s felt God prodding him to move for a while. Being compared to a dumb ox stuns him. The Greek/urban angle accuses him of rebellion. Once proudly known as a top student of the renowned teacher, Gamaliel, Paul now hears he’s a lousy learner. And here’s the final rub. After vaunting his mastery of the Law as authority to punish Christians as heretics, Christ uses the proverb to disabuse this idea. He, not Paul, has the upper hand. Until Paul submits to His authority, things will go hard. Kickfighting the Christians hurts him more than them.
Each of us is where we are when we are for a reason. Everything we learn and experience prepares us for what we’re created to achieve. Passions we nurture lead to purpose we fulfill. Disciplines we develop hone skills we use. Suffering builds character we need. Knowledge we gather enhances understanding we gain. Nothing—good or bad—is ever lost. Like Paul, noble intentions may lead us astray. We may believe we’re progressing when we’re really at a standstill. Realizing life’s purpose calls for keen sensitivity to God’s prod. When we sense urgency to break new ground, we should move as He directs. Trusting our knowledge instead of His guidance ends up proving how little we know. Kickfighting is senseless and self-defeating; He has the upper hand.
As it turns out, Paul’s rigorous learning and aggressive nature were pointless. They got him no farther than the Damascus road. But they weren’t useless. His intelligence and tenacity ideally suited him to break new ground. His command of the Law equipped him to refute its obsolete doctrines. His facility with ideas enabled him to explain Christ’s revolutionary concepts of unconditional love, unmerited favor, and unlimited faith. His far-flung efforts to stop the Church’s growth exposed him to every ethnicity, class, and belief, priming him to bring the gospel to Gentiles far and wide. After defending Jewish exclusivity with great boldness, he became an equally bold advocate of Christian inclusion. Everything Paul did wrong poised him to do right. His problem wasn’t incapability. It was unresponsiveness. We’re no different. When we sense God’s prod to move forward, we should ask, “Why kick against the goads when we can plow ahead?”
God prods us forward to break new ground.
(Tomorrow: Help from the Hills)