One can only guess at what might have been going on in Paul's mind when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus. But surely one question he must have asked himself was, "What the heck is he doing here?"
Paul, after all, was persecuting the followers of Jesus, a false messiah who had been put to death. The last thing, the absolute last thing he would have expected would be for Jesus to appear to him.
Jesus' appearance turned Paul's world upside down. Jesus, who had been put to death, was truly risen from the dead just as his disciples had claimed. From the Jewish perspective, the resurrection could only come at the end of history, not the middle of it.
Moreover, not only was this Jesus alive, he was asking his leading persecutor to follow him and to welcome Gentiles into the covenant relationship with God that had been reserved for Jews.
As Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini puts it: "The very moment Jesus makes (Paul) understand that he has been wrong about everything, he tells him, I entrust everything to you; I send you'" (The Gospel According to St. Paul, p. 23).
For the rest of his life, Paul was blown away by this graciousness. God had transformed him into the sacred vessel to proclaim the Good News right at the moment when Paul was preparing to persecute those disciples.
Paul's whole attitude became defined by humility. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost," he wrote in his first letter to Timothy (1:15).
The conversion of St. Paul is depicted in this painting on the ceiling of St. Paul's Basilica in Toronto.
Paul's reaction to God's revelation is so similar to that of Peter who, when his boat overflowed with fish, recognized the presence of the Divine, fell before Jesus and proclaimed, "Go away from me, Lord, I am a sinful man" (Luke 5:8).
When one sees the glory of God, one is also scorched with shame at his own sinfulness. Remarkably, however, neither Peter nor Paul was driven to despair by this awareness. Instead, they were filled with the fire to be great missionaries.
But they were also deeply aware that what is most precious in our lives is a gift. They had done nothing to deserve it or to create it. "We have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us" (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Our own sinfulness, our own fallibility, the fact that people's lives could be transformed despite their failings is a testament to the glory and power of God. This transformation bears witness to the triumph of grace, the victory of God's gift over human machinations.
The Reformation tradition in Christianity has correctly emphasized this centrality of grace. The Reformed tradition, to be sure, misunderstood Catholic teaching on grace – perhaps because that teaching was/is so poorly lived out – and may have minimized the importance of our cooperation with grace. But it is surely correct in stressing that salvation is God's gift, one not earned by human efforts.
My role is not one of having to please a taciturn, judgmental god who will only be impressed if I jump through the right hoops. This is a radically distorted picture of God, one that unfortunately remains very much alive today.
Such self-justification can only lead to the self-righteousness that Paul was converted from.
He remained a Jew, but it was a very different form of Judaism. His god was no longer a vengeful god who has a partisan commitment to the national interests of Israel. Paul's god was now the gracious God who opens his arms to all humanity and pours out his salvation on those who do not deserve it at all, whether Gentile or Jew.