Do we always know God when we see Him? Do we always recognize God at work in our lives? My guess is probably not. We don’t always know or understand the ways of God, nor can we anticipate them. God is surprising. We humans tend to rely on past experiences when we see something new – we go with what we know.
In today’s reading from Acts, that’s exactly what happens. When the people of Lystra witnessed Paul and Barnabas healing the paralytic – they couldn’t understand it. They saw the healing miracle with their own eyes, but it was so far removed from anything they had ever seen before they had to rely on their own experiences to explain it. Remember, Paul and Barnabas were in a foreign land – in a place where Jesus had never been, had never healed anyone. Paul and Barnabas were bringing the good news of Christ to them and were given power to perform miracles through the Holy Spirit. This was completely new for these people.
Also factor in that Paul was a funny looking man … at least according to legend. According to some of the literature of the first and second centuries Paul was not physically attractive. Apparently, he was small and bow-legged, his eyebrows ran across his forehead and met together; and he had a big nose and was bald-headed. He was, however, according to this same source, also strongly built, sort of stocky, and, of course, he did a lot of talking. Barnabas, on the other hand, looked a bit more dignified, and usually was quieter, letting the great preacher Paul do most of the speaking.
In addition there was a local belief of that time, told by Ovid in his book Metamorphoses, about an old and pious couple who had indeed entertained two strangers one time, who turned out to be Zeus and Hermes. This couple was later rewarded for their hospitality. So the people of Lystra were not going to miss out on this opportunity. They were convinced that Zeus (a good looking chief of gods) and Hermes (a small funny looking messenger who talked a lot) had returned to earth in the form of humans again, and this time the townspeople were going to entertain them and be rewarded.
The reason the people were offering sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas was because they thought they were Zeus and Hermes and if they offered sacrifices, they would be rewarded. They relied on what they knew to explain the phenomenon they had before them. They didn’t recognize God because of their old experiences.
How often do we miss out on what God is doing in our midst due to our old habits? How often do we explain away works of the Almighty because there is a “rational explanation” and not acknowledgment of the holy? Lord, open our eyes to see your work in the world around us.