“Conversion of Saint Paul” (detail) by Caravaggio

“When we hurt someone in the Body of Christ, we hurt Christ.”

Today’s Gospel is perhaps one of the greatest stories of all time—a story whose power may be overlooked because it has become so familiar. The Conversion of St. Paul is described three times throughout the book of Acts. There are many facets to the incident; it reveals to us that no one is beyond conversion and is a dramatic reminder of the mercy of God. It is also a wake-up call for us about the Body of Christ.

When Saul is knocked off his horse, Christ asks a powerful question: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

He doesn’t ask Saul why he killed Stephen, nor does he ask him why he is hunting down Christians. He doesn’t ask, “Why are you persecuting my Church?” Rather, he reveals the intimacy of the Body of Christ:

Why are you persecuting ME?

Christians are the largest religious group persecuted today. In fact, a study released last week found that that “the overwhelming majority (80%) of persecuted religious believers are Christians.” In some parts of the globe, the level of persecution comes close to amounting to genocide. In the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia, persecution is spreading both geographically and in severity. So upon hearing this story, it’s natural and good if our thoughts go first and foremost to our brothers and sisters around the world. Our fellow Christians are being deprived of their livelihoods, subject to discrimination, and killed. We must pray and fast for an end to these modern martyrdoms and beg God to bring mercy and conversion to our world.

St Bede explains, “Jesus does not say, ‘Why do you persecute my members?’, but, ‘Why do you persecute me?’, because he himself still suffers affronts in his body, which is the Church. Similarly Christ will take account of the good actions done to his members, for he said, ‘I was hungry and you gave me food …’ (Mt 25:35), and explaining these words he added, ‘As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’ (Mt 25:40).”

So our thoughts can’t only go to those across the globe, but must hit us closer to home. How have we served Christ in others… and how have we persecuted Him? Perhaps you’re thinking, “I’m not persecuting anyone!” But Jesus is clearly revealing to Paul what he will later expound on to the Corinthians and elsewhere – the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). When we hurt someone in the Body of Christ, we hurt Christ.

The story of St. Paul is not just a powerful conversion story of the man who would become one of the greatest Church leaders of all time. It should be an examination of conscience for me. Who have I hurt and wronged? Who are my enemies? Do I realize that in hurting them, in failing to forgive and holding grudges, and in gossiping about them, I am hurting Christ? Do I realize when I ignore the vulnerable around me, I’m ignoring Christ?

It is easy to love those people I like. It’s easy to be nice to the people who haven’t hurt me. But what about the people with whom I disagree? The people who push my buttons? The people who are hard to love?

Think of the parable of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus expands the scope of the mandate to love. Remember that the man asked Jesus the follow-up question about applying the Law, and asked Him: “Who is my neighbor?” (See Luke 10: 25-37). The usual interpretation was that “neighbor” meant a fellow member of your community or people.  Leviticus 19 indicates that resident aliens and strangers are not neighbors, but the command to love also extends to these people, because the people of Israel were strangers in the land of Egypt (see Lv 19:33-34).

But it remained controversial how far this was supposed to be taken. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine says, “Leviticus does not explicitly require him to love his ‘enemy’ who lives across the border, outside the boundaries of the community. In Jewish thought, one could not mistreat the enemy, but love was not mandated.”  Then she reminds us of something we often forget: “Only Jesus insists on loving the enemy … He may be the only person in antiquity to have given this instruction.”

Today, let Paul’s conversion prompt us to examine our own lives. Who do I persecute, whether through neglect, ridicule, grudges, gossip, or disrespect? How can I see Christ in those around me – even those with whom I disagree, those who have hurt me, or those whom annoy me? How can I love them?

St. Paul, pray for us!

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