Acts 14:5 – 18
There was a plot afoot amoung the Gentiles and Jews (of Iconium, 13:51), together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But, they found out about it and fled to the Lycoaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.
In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, and saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.
When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Laycaonian language, “The gods have come down to use in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. The priests of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But, when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowds shouting: “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, humans like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provided you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” Even with the words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrifcing to them.
Unless the artists (architectes and donors) have unlimited space, they have to make decisions about which stories, and which parts of stories to illustrate. Actually, until the late 19th century Impressionsist came about few artists produced art for arts-sake. Most worked on commissions, and in the case of religious art, followed the plans of the patron or arts-committee. Regarding the prior scene, when the elders lay hands on Barnabas and Paul, nearly a full chapter occurs (well worth reading, Acts 13, but I shall leave that for you private meditation). And, even in this case about the events in Lystra, the arts has to decide what moment to depict. Rather than illustrating the healing by faith which Paul proclaims, the artist captures the response of the crowd to this.
We Christians, two millenium later, might consider the expression and consequences of faith to be the key element. Why is there the story about the crowd in Lystra believing that Barnabas was Zeus and Paul was Hermes? Consider Star Wars. Now, having just brought up this contemporary movie, my readers have already had thought of good-verses-evil, Jedi Knights, Siths and Darth Vadar and Kylon Ren, the Force and the Darkside, etc. If I were telling you a story, and footnoted it with a reference, “That guys was a real Hans Solo”, you would immediately know what I was referring too.
Even with a slight knowledge of Greek mythology, you probably recognized the names Zeus and Hermes (in Roman mythology, they are Jupiter and Mercury). Unless you are a literary or history buff (aka Classics-Nerd), as this hermit is, you may not know of Ovid’s Metamorphasis… Okay, you took AP English in high school and read a couple of the Ovid’s poems, such as Narcissus falling in love with his own reflection… come on, your teacher was pulling one over on your youthful self-absorption.
In the story of Philemon and Baucis, Zeus and Hermes take on the form of humans. They travel in a region seeking someone who will treat them well. All of the villagers scoff at them, sending them away without hospitality. When they come to the humble hut of Philemon and Baucis, the couple takes them in, lets them warm up by their fire, and feeds them. In return, Zeus and Hermes reveal their deity, build a temple on the site of Philemon and Baucis home (remember the tradition of churches being built over homes of the early saints?), and make Philemon and Baucis priest and priestess of the temple. Thus, they are reward with wealth and status among the community which did not take in two travelers who appeared to be modest people.
Ovid compiled the poems in Metemorphasis right about the time of Jesus’ life. Thus, the people of Lystra would have been as familiar with the stories in Metamorphasis as we are of Star Wars.
The power of heave is great and has no bounds;
Whatever the gods determine if fulfilled.
I give you proof. Among the Phrygian hills
An oak tree and lime grow side by side,
Grit by a little wall. I saw the place
With my own eyes when Pittheus ordered me
To Pelop’s land where once his father reigned.
Not far from these two trees there is a marsh,
Once habitable land, but water now,
The busy home of divers, duck and coot.
Here once came Jupiter, in mortal guise,
And his father herald Mercury,
His wings now laid aside. A thousand homes
They came to seeking rest; a thousand homes
Were barred against them; yet one welcomed them,
Tiny indeed, and thatched with reeds and straw;
But in that cottage Baucis, old and good,
And Philemon (he as old as she)
Had joined their lives in youth, grown old together,
And ceased their poverty by bearing it
Contentedly and thinking it no shame.
It was vain to seek master and servent there;
They two were all the household, to obey
And to command. So when the heavenly ones
Reached their small home and, stooping, entered in
At the low door, the old man placed a bench
And bade them sit and rest their weary limbs,
And Baucis spread on it a simple rug
In busy haste, and from the hearth removed
The ash still warm, and fanned yesterday’s embers
And fed them leaves and bark, coaxed a flame
With her old breath; then from the rafters took
Split billets and dry twigs and broke them small,
And on them placed a little copper pan;
The trimmed a cabbage which her spouse had brought
In from the stream-fed garden. He reached down
With a forked stick from the black beam a chine
Of smoke-cured pork, and from the lone-kept meat
Cut a small piece and put it in to boil.
Meanwhile their talk beguiles the passing hour
And time glides unperceived. A beechwood bowl
Hung by it curving handle from a peg;
They fill it with warm water and their guests
Bathe in the welcome balm their weary feet.
They place a mattress of soft river-sedge
Upon a couch (its frame and feet were willow)
And spread on it their drapes, only brought out
On holy days, yet old and cheap they were,
Fit for a willow couch. The Gods reclined.
Then the old woman, aproned, shakily,
Arranged the table, but one leg was short;
A crock adjusted it, and when the slope
Was levelled up she wiped it with green mint.
Then olives, black and green, she brings, the fruit
Of true Minerva, Autumn cherry plums
Bottled in wine lees, endive, radishes,
And creamy cheese and eggs truned carefuly
In the cooling ash; all served in earthenware.
Next a wine-bowl, from the same “silver” chased
Is set and beechwood cups, coated inside
With yellow wax. No long delay; the hearth
Sends forth the streaming feast and wine again
Is brought of no great age, then moved aside,
Giving a space to bring the second course.
Here are their nuts and figs, here wrinkled dates,
And plums and fragrant apples in broad trugs,
And sweet grapes gathered from the purple vines,
And in the midst a fine pale honeycomb;
And — over all — a zeal, not poor nor slow,
And faces that with smiling goodness glow.
Meanwhile they saw, when the wine-bowl was drained,
Each time it filled itself, and wine welled up
All of its own accord with the bowl.
In fear and wonder Baucis and Philemon
With hands upturned, joined in a timid prayer
And pardon sought for the crude graceless meal.
There was one goose, the trusty guardian
Of their minuted domain and they, the hosts,
Would sacrifice him for the Gods, their guests.
But he, swift-winged, wore out their slow old bones
And long escaped them, till at last he seemed
To flee for sanctuary to the God themselves.
The deities forbade, “We two are gods”,
They said, “This wicked neighborhood shall pay
Just punishment; but to you there sahll be given
Exemption from this evil. Leave your home,
Accomapy our steps and climb with us
The mountain slopes.” The two old folk obey
And slowly struggle up the long asset,
Propped on their sticks. A bowshot from the top
They turn their eyes and see the land below
All flooded marshes now except their house;
And while they wondered and in tears bewail
Their lost possessions, that old cottage home,
Small even for two owners, is transformed
Into a temple; columns stand beneath
The rafters, and thatch, turned yellow, gleams
A roof fo gold; and the fine doors richly carved
They see, and the bare earth with marble paved.
Then Saturn’s son in gentle tones addresses them:
“Tell us, you good old mand you, good dame,
His worthy consort, what you most desire.”
Philemon briefly spoe with Baucis, then
Declared their joint decision to the Gods:
“We ask to be your priest and guard your shrine;
And, since in concord we have spent our years,
Grant that the selfsame hour may take us both,
That I my consorts tomb may never see
Nor may it fall to her to bury me.”
Their prayer was granted. Guardians of the shrine
They were while life was left, until one day,
Undone by years and age, standing before
The sacred steps and talking of olf times,
Philemon was old Baucis sprouting leaves
And green with leaves she saw Philemon too,
And as the foliage o’er their faces formed
They said, while still they might, in mutual words
“Goodbye, dear love” together, and together
The hiding bark covered their lips. Today
The peasants in those parts point out with pride
Two trees from one twin trunk grown side by side.
This tale I heard from staid old men who had
No reason to deceive. I saw myself
Wreaths on the boughs and hung a fresh one there,
And said: “They now are gods, who served the Gods;
To them who worship gave is worship given.”