Liars, brutes, and lazy gluttons?

A grape farmer in Crete offers two clusters from his vineyard as a gift.

“Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons,” said the apostle Paul in his letter to Titus (1:12). My wife and I found no evidence of such dereliction when we traveled across Crete. We stopped along a mountain road to watch the grape harvest, and a farmer approached our car. With a gracious bow he thrust two grape clusters through the window as a gift. The man was neither brute nor lazy glutton!

Paul usually transcends prejudice. In Christ, he said, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, no longer male and female, for all of you are one” (Galatians 3:28). But Paul’s letter to Titus shows how impatient he could be with the “circumcision party,” Jewish Christians who insisted on adherence to the full law of Moses.

The apostle was a brilliant ambassador of the gospel—and very human. His prejudice against Cretans is unfortunate, and stands in contrast to the rest of his message. Was it fair to quote a stereotype about Cretans written six centuries earlier? Was it wise to cite the very words a Cretan philosopher (Epimenides) used to extol the Greek god Zeus? Regarding Zeus the philosopher wrote,

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Perhaps Paul did not use his best judgement in comments about Cretans. But as happens to all of us, he sometimes reflects assumptions of his culture—in his case patriarchy and tolerance of slavery. We need to discern the arc of freedom in Christ that soars through Paul’s theology, and let prejudices that appear in his letters remind us to examine our own biases.

I was raised in a Christian community where people never used ugly epithets for other ethnic groups. But I sometimes heard stereotypes. An “Indian giver” gave a gift and then wanted it back. An unsavory character might try to “Jew down” the price in a business deal. Puerto Rican migrant farm workers could be housed in shacks because “that’s what they’re used to back home.”

Today people in the United States are told that immigrants coming to the southern border are rapists and drug dealers–when every study shows that such newcomers are less likely to commit crime than native-born citizens. Fear-mongering about immigrants is a lie.

Social media and politicians hurl labels at many groups to wound and to incite prejudice, including: Arab, evangelical, conservative, liberal, Muslim, unemployed, gay, homophobic, global, and socialist. These terms can be simply descriptive. Used as slurs, they carry a subtext intended to trigger fear or hatred.

In the larger trajectory of his letters, Paul points away from such manipulation. He exhorts believers on Crete to devote themselves to things that are “excellent and profitable to everyone” (3:8). In counsel that would end prejudicial behavior, Paul tells Titus to “have nothing to do with anyone who causes divisions” (3:11). That is wisdom sorely needed in church and society today.

© 2019  J. Nelson Kraybill ************************

Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a Journey of Hope tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019:

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In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth.

We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice issues of Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.

A second Journey of Hope tour on June 10-20, 2020 can be paired with a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. See //

Danger and loss lie that way

We had not traveled the whole way to Crete to be intimidated by a few washed-out roads! Determined to cross the island to the south coast, Ellen and I rented a sturdy SUV and headed into the drenched central mountains. Our destination? A tiny harbor called Fair Havens where a merchant ship carrying the apostle Paul once anchored (Acts 27).


From the rainy central mountains we saw sunshine in the bay at Fair Havens (modern Kali Limenes) where Paul’s ship anchored.

If we were tense driving mountain roads in stormy weather, how anxious must Paul have been when he arrived at Crete? The apostle was a prisoner, appealing his case to Nero’s court at Rome. His life was at stake. Further danger came from making such a sea journey late in the sailing season when storms could sink a ship.

Unlike modern sailboats with deep keels, ancient sailing vessels could not “beat” upwind. They only could run with or sail across the wind. Unfavorable conditions quickly could blow a wind-powered ship far off course.

Staying near land as long as possible, Paul’s ship had followed the coastline from Palestine up to southern Asia (modern Turkey). From there the vessel turned southwest until “with difficulty” it rounded the east end of Crete and continued along the south coast to the harbor at Fair Havens.

Ellen and I headed toward the harbor by land, crossing the central mountain range in cloud and mist. But as we crested Crete, the heavy weather broke, and the south coast came into view. Sunlight streamed down on Fair Havens!

When Paul arrived there, he told his captors that it was too dangerous to continue further. But the ship captain had a mind of his own, and insisted they at least sail to the west end of Crete for the winter.

When the boat weighed anchor, a violent northeaster caught them, blowing the ship far out into open waters. The only option was to continue westward and hope for the best. Paul had warned that “danger and much heavy loss” would accompany such a voyage.

Sometimes that’s what I want to say when I see polarization and partisan behavior in the church. Sometimes I sense danger and heavy loss ahead when my government ignores environmental warnings, cuts benefits for the poor, gives tax breaks to the rich, stokes racism, or aligns with dictators. I am not a prisoner, but I am along for the journey with my church and my country.

When Paul’s ship got into serious trouble at sea, he declared, “You should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete.” But the apostle did not linger long with “I told you so.” Instead, even as his vessel careened toward catastrophe, Paul as prisoner testified to the saving power of God. He encouraged fellow travelers and prayed with them. He so cared for the crew that they chose, apparently against standard pratice regarding prisoners, to spare his life rather than execute him when shipwreck became certain. Six hundred miles west of Fair Havens, after a torturous passage, the ship carrying Paul disintegrated on the coast of Malta.

Paul’s dilemma at Crete reminds me that difficult or dangerous circumstances sometimes are completely beyond my control. Then I remember, with Paul, that a loving and merciful God is sovereign. What will I do to show God’s love to fellow church members or fellow citizens if, God forbid, crisis and hardship follow in the wake of bad choices others have made? And who will mediate God’s grace to me when I make bad choices?

© 2017  J. Nelson Kraybill ****************************************IMG_0425

Come with my wife Ellen and me on a Peace Pilgrim walk in Galilee and Jerusalem—an active tour accessible even to non-athletes like myself. Dates are May 14-25, 2018. We will walk parts of the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum. Details are still pending but we likely also will hike at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took the disciples on retreat in the foothills of Mt Hermon. At Jerusalem we will walk the city walls, trace the triumphal entry route, and more. Interested? See