Sermon from Lent IV: Lessons from Festus

Lessons from Festus
Lent IV; March 14, 2021
Acts 25

I like Porcius Festus. He’s the new Roman Procurator for Judea in today’s reading, and I had some fun reading about him and the other political figures around him. Roman imperial politics are almost as interesting as American federal politics, but I’d best stay focused on Scripture. For the sake of those who aren’t doing the Year of the Bible with us, or who are behind, or didn’t quite catch everything in the preceding chapters, I’d like to fill in the story for you.

Last week we read about Paul’s farewell journey as he returned to Jerusalem, anticipating trouble there. In Jerusalem he was falsely accused of crimes against the Temple and was arrested, largely to prevent a riot. As I said last week, he did have a way with people. He stood before the Council, the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities in Judea. He looked over his audience, realized who he was dealing with, and managed to get them fighting with each other. One interesting moment was when his nephew learned of a plot to kill him and went to the Roman military authority to warn them.

Now, Jerusalem was the spiritual heart of Judea, but was not the center of political administration. The Roman governor – called the Procurator – worked from a coastal city named Caesarea Maritima. It was a little south of the present-day city of Haifa in the State of Israel. Anyway, the Tribune, Claudius Lysias, felt the situation would be better controlled in Caesarea than in Jerusalem, so he decided to send Paul to the Procurator Felix in Caesarea with about 470 soldiers to protect him from assassins. After all, Paul was a Roman citizen and was entitled to a fair trial.

They got Paul to Caesarea and Felix heard his case, but came to no decision. According to Luke, he dithered over it for about two years, because he was hoping for a bribe. It should also be noted that Felix was dealing with almost constant insurrection from, well, domestic terrorists. One source I read said that an observer of the day said that life in Judea during Felix’s administration felt like being in a place where no one was in charge. Finally, the Emperor replaced Felix with a new Procurator, Porcius Festus, about whom you heard us read.

At the same time the Romans were actually running things in Judea, there was a man who had the title of King and who kept a palace in Jerusalem, Agrippa II. He was the last Herod, the great-grandson of Herod the Great, the King Herod who ruled when Jesus was born, and he was the great-nephew of Herod Antipas, the King Herod when Jesus was crucified. Got that? Anyway, Agrippa II was King, but not of Judea. He ruled other bits of territory at the pleasure of the Emperor Nero.

After his appointment, Festus made a courtesy visit to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem; they asked him to transfer Paul to Jerusalem so he could be tried there. According to Luke, they had an ambush planned to try again to kill him. But Festus held firm and told them that if any of them wanted to go with him to Caesarea, they were welcome. When he offered Paul the chance to be transferred to Jerusalem, if he wished, he said that no, he considered himself on trial before the imperial authorities, and that was how he wanted it.

This is a timely thing to notice, since we have had lots of litigation in our country regarding religious matters. When congregations or pastors get unhappy at the direction of a national church, they will leave and sue to hold onto property. When school science departments try to teach good biological science, some conservative Christian organization will try to get the State to require teaching so-called “creationism” or “intelligent design.” When courts find that LGBTQIA+ people have the same rights as everyone else, people will try to get that overturned from religious conviction. In Iowa, after the State Supreme Court found that the Iowa constitution did not allow the State to discriminate against gay people, conservative Christians managed to get three Supreme Court justices removed.

Generally speaking, the courts are reluctant to get involved in religious disputes. They pay attention to the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent and avoid dealing with matters of doctrine and religious opinion. That worked in Paul’s favor when he was taken to court in Corinth; Gallio the Proconsul said that it was a religious matter and the government wasn’t going to get involved. After the riot in Ephesus the town clerk said that if Paul had committed a crime, then he should be taken to court, and so the citizens dispersed and Paul went free. And in the story we’re talking about today, Festus is going to find that Paul is not guilty of a crime against the State, even if his religious opponents hate him. He’s still going to send him to Rome to appear before the Emperor, which is a good thing, in my opinion. It meant that Paul was safe from the mobs in Jerusalem who wanted him dead, and that Paul was free to proclaim the Gospel in the heart of the Empire. Even when the government decides not to get involved in matters of religion, God uses that decision for good.

The last scene of today’s pageant is the appearance of King Herod Agrippa II, with his sister Bernice. Remember that this Agrippa has no real power in Judea, unlike his father Agrippa I, but he still puts in a showy appearance and Festus treats him with respect. What I’ve read suggested that Agrippa II was basically a good guy and a decent administrator, but people said unkind things about him because he never married and his sister and her children lived with him after she was widowed. You know how people gossip. In the next chapter, which Year of the Bible participants will read on Tuesday, Paul makes his case to Agrippa and Bernice.

So, what lessons shall I offer you from Festus? I have three, three things I see in him that I believe are praiseworthy and that I hope you and I will work at emulating.

  1. Festus is more humble than he needs to be. There in Caesarea Maritima and in Jerusalem he holds the power of the Emperor. Agrippa has moral authority as a Jewish king, but he has no political power in Judea. Nonetheless, Festus treats him with respect and confers with him about what to do with Paul. Let me share an analogy from something I have noticed. During my years as a pastor, I have been privileged to know some truly wealthy people. None of them has been ostentatious, in-your-face about it. With one exception, they did not use the “I give a lot of money to this church and so you had better do what I tell you” line. The people who seem to be flashy about money are people who are not wealthy but want other people to think they are. And so, I believe, it can be with political power. Those who have it, like Festus, don’t need to show it off or remind others of how unimportant those others are. Festus is secure enough in his position and power that he can treat Agrippa with respect. Can you and I be secure enough in ourselves to treat others with respect?
  1. Festus listens to reason, not to emotional appeals. Here’s an experience of my own. We were planning an event and I had decided that it should go ABC. Another person involved insisted it should go BCA. She harangued me, yelled at me, insisted it should be BCA, but I didn’t budge. Another person, a member of the Church, calmly sat down with me and said she thought it should go BCA, and gave me three good reasons for the change. I thought about it and said she was right, and I changed it. Well, person #1 was furious: “You won’t change it when I ask but you change it when she asks!” I replied that #1 never gave me any reason to change it except that she told me to, but person #2 had factually-based reasons for making the change. So, perhaps I’m biased, but I admire Festus for being reasonable: the shouting and accusations from Paul’s enemies do not sway him; just because people hate you doesn’t mean you are guilty of anything. He considers the facts and makes his judgment on the facts.
  1. And Festus is fair. He listens to all the voices involved – Paul, Paul’s enemies, King Agrippa – and he pays attention to the requirements of the law. He is not hasty and, if he’s biased, he pays more attention to the realities before him than he does to his bias. I admire fair-minded people, Festus and others like him. I admire Supreme Court justices who are expected to decide a particular way because of what is assumed about their political and religious beliefs, but whose decisions are based on the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent. Our former President may feel himself betrayed by justices he appointed, because they do not do his bidding. But they are in a seat like that of Festus: they are to decide based on the Constitution, the law, and judicial precedent, not the preferences of their own beliefs or the wishes of the President who appointed them. And when they behave that way, I hope that you will respect them for it.

I have no great spiritual insights for you today, nothing profound about the presence of God. Sometimes the Bible simply tells an interesting story. I find today’s story very interesting, especially because of the portrait it paints of a politician who is humble, rational, and fair. I like Porcius Festus.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska