What happens in this text today is far too similar to much of what is happening in our political (and church) world today. The characters in the scene are playing identity politics. These battles with different names, faces, and identity groupings play themselves out today–much of it in ALL CAPS on social media! Even Paul was not above the fray and joins in on the name calling and political intrigue.
Then there is Ananias, the chief priest (identity forming statement), who according to Josephus, was known for his cruelty, violence, and greed. He wanted to declare Paul guilty before he even had a trial–and to do so violently. If his people hit Paul, Ananias retained the upper hand while naming Paul a heretic, a retrograde and a lawbreaker without a trial.
Paul, in turn, calls him a “whitewashed wall” which most likely reminds readers of Jesus’ use of “whitewashed tombs” for the hypocritical teachers of the law and the Pharisees in Matthew 23. While there is certainly some claim of hypocrisy from Paul to Ananais, this is likely a Hebrew Scripture inference grouping Ananais with the false leaders/prophets in Ezekiel 13 who built “flimsy walls” covered with whitewash. And when Paul is called on this egregious behaviour, he plays coy, “Oh I didn’t see anyone who looks and acts like high priest there. Sorry!” There are a lot of identity games being played here!
At the end of today’s reading, we see Paul is reminded of his true identity when “the Lord stood near him” and said, “Never forget, you are my child, and I am using you for my glory.” Those are not the exact words, but it’s what we should hear when we read the line “Keep up your courage… you must bear witness also in Rome.” The whole book of Acts tells the story of Acts 1:8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.” Paul is being told that he was right in line with what the Holy Spirit was empowering him to do. That identity pushed him forward in life and ministry.
From where do we receive our identity? Is it from the roles we assume, from our ethnic/cultural understanding or from our religious and/or political groupings? Is it from the names we are called? Is it success based? Is it power based? Or does it come from the quiet whispers of God during our prayers where we hear God say to us, “You are loved! You are my child! And by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are being used for my glory.” That identity should push us forward in life and ministry.