What St. Paul’s Momentous Trip to Athens Tells Us Today

COMMENTARY: The apostle’s sermon in the Areopagus was one of Christendom’s greatest missionary achievements.

St. Paul preaching the 'Areopagus Sermon' in Athens, by Raphael, 1515.
St. Paul preaching the 'Areopagus Sermon' in Athens, by Raphael, 1515. (photo: Public domain)

Can we hear the Gospel message? We have ears, why can we not hear? 

The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3-9) brings to our attention the fact that not all of us hear the same message when the same message is preached. Why is it that some can hear while others cannot? 

In Our Lord’s lesson to us, as the sower goes about his business, some of his seeds fall on the wayside, beside the road, and are eaten by birds. Other seeds fall on the rocky places where there is no depth of soil to allow for germination. Then some seeds fall among the thorns, which allows the seeds to be choked and destroyed. Still yet, some seeds fall on good ground, which produce more seeds and crops. 

Jesus ends his parable by saying, “He who has ears, let him hear.” He intends his listeners to understand him and live by his words. Jesus’ intentions, however, are not always fulfilled. Yet, when it has been heeded, God’s successes have spread throughout the world.

It seems clear that, in order to hear the word of God, one must be properly disposed to receive it. It is not merely a matter of auditory acuity. Inattention, resistance and pride can prevent one from hearing what needs to be heard. The heart can hear that to which the ear remains deaf. The Parable of the Sower should inspire us to be more humble in order that we can be more receptive.

St. Paul, regarded as the world’s first Christian missionary, preached the word of God to the nations. Like Christ, he saw that not all of his listeners accepted what he had to say. And, while his preaching was not in vain and he won over many converts, it was also fraught with mortal dangers. For instance, he had encountered difficulties while preaching in northern Greece and barely escaped with his life. He was taken to Athens for safety. There, he was greatly distressed to find that Athens was rampant with idols. Significantly, however, it was in Athens, the intellectual cradle of Western civilization, that St. Paul would achieve one of his (and God’s) most celebrated missionary achievements.

Many years before St. Paul arrived, an Athenian by the name of Aristotle had advised public speakers to “render their audience benevolent.” In his treatise On Rhetoric, Aristotle provides an important insight regarding human communication: No one will listen to you, no matter how important your message is, if you have not first gained their goodwill and a sense of shared principles from which to start. 

St. Paul knew this, as well. He began his sermon by acknowledging that Athenians worshipped God. He also cited various Greek poets and philosophers. He mentioned an altar he found with the inscription, “To an unknown God.” 

After establishing this common ground, he then told his audience that “you are ignorant of the very thing you worship — and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” He then emphasized the need to know God rather than to worship one who is unknown. He explained that the one Creator, God, should be worshipped — not idols of gold, silver and stone: 

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-26).

As elsewhere in his missionary travels, St. Paul’s efforts met with mixed results. When Paul spoke of Christ’s resurrection, some mocked him, but others “joined him and believed.” Among the believers were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris. 

From a historical perspective, St. Paul’s sermon to the Athenians was of great importance, serving as a decisive moment in the spread of Christianity. The Areopagus sermon, as it is called, which was given at a location that served as a center of temples, cultural facilities and a high court, is the most dramatic and most fully-reported speech of St. Paul’s missionary career.

High Renaissance master Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520) has faithfully and beautifully captured St. Paul’s experience in Athens in his painting St. Paul Preaching in Athens. He makes room in his masterpiece for the viewer to be placed among the circle of listeners. 

How would we respond, we might ask ourselves, if we were in the audience listening to St. Paul’s words? As a matter of fact, how do we respond today to Christ’s words?

Raphael depicts the members of St. Paul’s audience reacting in different ways. Slightly to the right of the center is a man who appears to be asleep. It brings to mind St. Thomas More’s remark in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, that the nobility of England “would have snored through the Sermon on the Mount.” (In explaining his evergreen desire to preach Christ at all times and to all people, St. Paul said in 1 Corinthians, "I have become all things to all men.") At the extreme right of the painting, with outstretched hands, are Dionysius and Damaris. And if we were situated in the painting, how would Raphael have portrayed us?

Raphael’s painting is also a kind of visual commentary on the Parable of the Sower. Just as the words of Christ would not be heard by all of his listeners, so, too, St. Paul’s words would receive the same fate. At the end of his life, imprisoned, lonely and exhausted, St. Paul wrote in his Second Letter to Timothy (4:7): “The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith.”

Who are the St. Pauls of today, we might ask? Where are those courageous souls who are preaching the Gospel without compromise and without fear of persecution? 

Today, the primary lesson that must be preached is a return to common sense. We have lost the ground in which Christianity must be planted. Unless civilization can reclaim a foundational mental clarity, together with a shared regard for moral values, Christianity cannot take root. We need another Aristotle to show us how to find common ground here on earth before we can reinvite another St. Paul to bring home to us our common destiny awaiting us in heaven.