The word of the day is “pretext.” Evil comes in many disguises. One of these is to hide one’s motives under the cloak of pretext. This tactic of wickedness misleads others into believing that the reasons for one’s actions are good and genuine. Today in our reading of Acts 17:1-15, we find that envious Jews stir up a mob in Thessalonica. The crowd drags the host of Paul and Silas to the pagan rulers of the city. They charge that Jason and the followers of Christ have acted “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king–Jesus” (OSB vs. 7).
Today we exam this example of a pretext and find that pretexts are based on motives, the motivations of the passions.
Pretext as a Cover for Envy
The charge was like the accusation against the Lord Jesus at his trial before Pilate. It was a pretext for the true motive of the envy of the Jews in Thessalonica. So today, we exam the disguise of evil in pretexts and we consider how to avoid this way of hiding one’s true intentions.
Once again, we read that Paul came to another city and proclaimed the Gospel in the synagogue. And again, he had success, especially with “devout Greeks,” that is, Hellenistic Jews, and some “leading women” (OSB vs. 4). But, again, the opposition against Paul incited an uproar. The mob could not find Paul and Silas but attacked the house of Jason where the apostles were staying. The crowd drags Jason and some believers to the rulers of the city.
The Pretext of False Charges
But the Roman ruler of the city was a pagan, and the Jews knew that he would have no interest in religious disputes. So the Jewish leaders concocted charges against the believers. They made the false claim that the faithful were saying that there is another king besides Caesar. Insurrection was a grave offense. In the period between the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and the end of the 1st century A.D. there were no less than thirteen major revolts against Roman authority not only in the provinces but among Roman politicians. Such rebelliousness was swiftly punished with exceptionally cruel torture and death.
The charges of the Jews against Paul and Silas hid their true purpose, which was to undermine and destroy the faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews deceitfully used the power of the state to enforce their hatred and promote their interest. It was one of the most frequent pretexts—to confuse the kingdoms of this world with the Kingdom of God.
The righteousness of human action is often a matter of motives. We can do the right things for the wrong reasons. And we can do evil things for what would be considered good reasons. St. Maximos the Confessor said, “Many human activities, good in themselves, are not good because of the motive for which they are done.” For example, fasting and vigils, prayer and psalmody, acts of charity and hospitality are by nature good, but when performed for the sake of self-esteem, they are not good.
The same is true of other actions that may seem good and noble in the eyes of those who do them. The Lord said, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (OSB John 16:2). Indeed, the Jews in Thessalonica probably rationalized that they were protecting their leadership and teaching of Judaism.
Pretexts Are Born of the Passions
Today’s study teaches that we should pray for the discernment of the motives of ourselves and others. But we should realize that the pretexts are born of the passions. For instance, the pretext of the charges against Paul and Silas came from the passion of envy of the Jewish leaders. To avoid falling into the trap of rationalizations and pretexts, we need the cleansing of the passions. So let us renew our struggle for purity of heart that we might also have purity of motives and avoid pretexts.