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Barnabas and Paul: Contentious Collaborators

Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB

June 11, 2014
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Today’s memorial of St. Barnabas presents us with one of Paul’s great collaborators who played a very significant role in the initial evangelization.  I would like to share with you some reflections about these two men and apostles.  First some thoughts from today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles 11:21b-26; 12:1-3. Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36) or “son of consolation”. He was a Levite Jew and a native of Cyprus.  Having settled in Jerusalem, he was one of the first to embrace Christianity after the Lord’s Resurrection. With great generosity, he sold a field, which belonged to him, and gave the money to the Apostles for the Church’s needs (Acts 4:37).
Barnabas spent a whole year with Paul in Antioch, dedicated to the evangelization of that important city.  In the Antioch Church, Barnabas was known as a prophet and teacher (cf. Acts 13:1).  At the time of the first conversions of the Gentiles, Barnabas realized that Saul’s hour had come. As Paul had retired to his native town of Tarsus, he went there to look for him. We could say that Barnabas was in some way Paul’s agent!  He presented Paul back to the Church as the great apostle to the Gentiles.
The Church of Antioch then sent Barnabas on a mission with Paul, which became known as the Apostle’s first missionary journey. In fact, it was Barnabas’ missionary voyage since Barnabas was in charge and Paul had joined him as a collaborator as they visited the regions of Cyprus and Central and Southern Anatolia in present-day Turkey, along with the cities of Attalia, Perga, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra and Derbe.  A wonderful friendship between Paul and Barnabas was born on that journey. Later on, when a second campaign was planned, Barnabas proposed taking Mark as a helper, but Paul resisted the idea.
The New Testament indicates that a “sharp contention” developed between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41). They could not reach an agreement, and so they split up. As far as we know, these two remarkable men never saw one another again.  It is a sad story that can teach us much.  Who was right – Paul or Barnabas?  We simply don’t know. Some argue that Paul was just too stubborn to give in. We read that the church in Antioch “commended” Paul and Silas (Acts 15:40), but nothing is said about any commendation of Barnabas and Mark.
This dissension between Paul and Barnabas was not over a doctrinal issue. The rupture involved a personal dispute based upon a judgment call. To their credit, neither Paul nor Barnabas let the conflict distract them from their respective efforts of spreading the Gospel.  Even in our day, there will always be times when men and women of good will disagree in matters of opinion.  But we must agree to disagree in charity, especially if we are ministers of the Gospel.
What can we learn from these stories of Paul and Barnabas?  First of all we know what they had in common.  They were in love with the same man: Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of the world. Despite their human frailty and because of it, they kept focused on doing the will of Christ.  They took the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.
Even in the midst of human tensions and wounded friendships, because they loved the Lord and were loved by the Lord, even more work was accomplished for the sake of the Gospel because of the manner in which their disagreements and frailty were handled.  We learn from them that there can be disputes, disagreements, controversies and sinfulness among the saints! Paul and Barnabas are people like us who often complicate life because of our frailty and problems.  Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned. Holiness increases the capacity for conversion, for repentance, for willingness to start again and, especially, for reconciliation and forgiveness.
The fact that the personal conflict of these two apostles are openly displayed on the pages of the New Testament is evidence that the Holy Spirit guided the evangelists in writing the story of the early Church. No account, however irrelevant it may appear to be, is without importance. They offer us lessons to be mastered, not only about the New Testament, but also about our own personal histories. St. Paul and St. Barnabas, pray for us.