The solemnity of Saint Paul’s shipwreck on our islands is a great feast for all of us. Irrespective of our ‘theories’ on the event we, thankfully, come from an island that was evangelised by Saint Paul himself, the great apostle of the gentiles.
I really liked the argument put forward by His Grace Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna during his speech when meeting the members of Christians Together in Malta during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, precisely on Saturday 25 January 2020, at the refectory of the Archbishop Curia, in order to answer the query if the Melitae of the Book of Acts is our beloved Malta or not.
“As to whether the Melitae of the Book of Acts is our island or not, I always tell our friends that you do not go to Syracuse from Dalmatia, you go to Syracuse from Malta. So if you want to know whether it was Malta in the Mediterranean here, you read how the journey goes on. It is Malta Syracuse to north and then Regium, so it is not from Dalmatia because they would have gone to Brindisium. That is how I persuaded Cardinal Ratzinger that it was our Melitae and not the one in Dalmatia, with all due respect.”
Now, back to that unusual kindness which the Greek text of the Acts renders as οὐ τὴν τυχοῦσαν φιλανθρωπίαν (ou tēn tychousan philanthrōpian). When one translates the phrase word by word, that is literally, one gets the following translation: “Not [just] the ordinary kindness.” Moreover, this discourse regarding this unusual kindness gets more interesting when one observes what happens in other translations of the same biblical text, that is Acts 28:2.
In fact, in certain translations of the Book of Acts there is an interesting variation of this phrase “unusual kindness” (as found in the Revised Standard Version). It has been translated as no ordinary kindness (Berean Study Bible), the people of the country were very kind to us (New Living Translation), extraordinary kindness (New American Standard Bible), the natives were showing not just the ordinary kindness to us (Berean Literal Bible), the people shewed us no little kindness (King James Bible), the local people were very friendly (Contemporary English Version), unusually kind (International Standard version), uncommon kindness (New Heart English Bible), great kindness (Aramaic Bible in Plain English), no little kindness (American King James Version), no common kindness (American Standard Version), and remarkable kindness (Weymouth New Testament).
What we can conclude from the above analysis is that the kindness shown by the natives, or the barbaroi (βάρβαροι), as Luke names them, is that such a kindness is unusual because it is uncommon, extraordinary, very friendly, and remarkable. Yet, what was remarkable, extraordinary and uncommon about that kindness, or as the Septuagint translation puts it non modicam humanitatem?
In his homily 54 of the Acts of the Apostles Saint John Chrysostom writes: “They showed no small kindness, and yet (some of them) were prisoners. Let those be ashamed that say, Do not do good to those in prison: let these barbarians shame us; for they knew not who these men were, but simply because they were in misfortune (they were kind): thus much they perceived, that they were human beings, and therefore they considered them to have a claim upon their humanity.”
Chyrsostom does not stop on the showing of hospitality per se by the natives and, especially, by Publius, the chief man of the island (Acts 28:7) but also, and with great clarity of insight, he successfully shows its overarching benefits too when he comments:
“Consider how great the gain of his hospitality: not as of necessity, not as unwilling, but as reckoning it a gain he lodged them for three days: thereafter having met with his requital, he naturally honored Paul much more, when the others also received healing. Who also, it says, honored us with many honors (v. 10): not that he received wages, God forbid; but as it is written, The workman is worthy of his meat. And when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary. (Matt. x. 10.) It is plain that having thus received them, they also received the word of the preaching: for it is not to be supposed, that during an entire three months they would have had all this kindness shown them, had these persons not believed strongly, and herein exhibited the fruits (of their conversion): so that from this we may see a strong proof of the great number there was of those that believed. Even this was enough to establish (Paul’s) credit with those (his fellow voyagers).”
An interesting point that Saint John Chyrsostom is making concerning this unusual kindness is that it blantantly shames those who neglect showing it to those who are in need. Obviously, by mentioning the example of those who are in prison Chyrsostom is also telling us that faith without works is, indeed, dead. How right was Saint James in his letter when he wisely opens our hearts and minds against a sterile faith when he says: What does it profit, my brethren, if a man says he has faith but has not works? Can his faith save him? If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But some one will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith (Jas 2:14-18).
In other words, the kindness which the Lukan text is talking about is not a sheer feeling! A sympathy! It is compassion! A compassion that is translated into tangible works of solidarity! And here I cannot not mention what Saint John Paul II has written in his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, which commemorates the twentieth anniversary of Saint Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio, regarding the great Christian virtue of solidarity when he said: “This (solidarity) then is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (no. 38).
The Catholic tradition has always been on the avan-garde to detail what this solidarity consists of, namely in the works of mercy. In number 2447 the Cathecism of the Catholic Church tells us: “The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. Among all these, giving alms to the poor is one of the chief witnesses to fraternal charity: it is also a work of justice pleasing to God.”
Are we ready to show this unusual kindness, even nowadays, to those who feel lost, downhearted, sick, imprisoned, confused, strangers, judged, rejected, depressed, angry and so on, starting, of course, from our families and religious communities and then extending to Maltese and non-Maltese alike?
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap