This Sunday’s first reading is one of the most interesting in the Acts of the Apostles. It important to recall that the Acts of the Apostles is universally recognized as having been written by Luke, the author of the third Gospel. The section we read this Sunday has traditionally been regarded as the foundation of the diaconate in the church. However, the actual text never calls the seven “deacons.” In a sense, it is irrelevant because people referred to as “deacons” clearly appear elsewhere in the New Testament.
However, the text is remarkably interesting in other ways. We are told there was a “grumbling/complaint” by the “Hellenists” against the “Hebrews.” This can be misleading, especially if one reads these descriptions as ethnic terms. Jews were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. Those who spoke Greek and lived in the Greco-Roman were called “Hellenists.” They were Jews who lived away from Palestine, spoke Greek and for whom the Temple in Jerusalem was not (could not be) central for their religious life. “Hebrews,” on the other hand, were Jews who lived in the Holy Land, spoke Aramaic and for whom the Temple in Jerusalem was central.
In our reading, the Hellenists complain their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution (diakonia) of food. This is not a small complaint, nor just a demographic oversight. Mention of widows, orphans and the stranger appear again and again in the Hebrew Bible — and in the Old Testament, widows and orphans are a specially protected group. God himself is the defender (Ps. 68:5) and sustainer (Ps. 146:9) of widows. Most powerful is Exodus 22:22-24: “You will not ill-treat widows or orphans; if you mistreat them in any way and they appeal to me for help, I shall certainly hear their appeal, my anger will be roused and I shall put you to the sword….”
While ignoring the widow might not be all that much for the modern reader, for the Jew it was one of the “sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.” Thus, the Hellenist complaint against the Hebrews in this reading is a serious accusation.
Things do not get better when the Twelve gather the community and announce, “it is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve (diakonein) tables.” Throughout the Gospels, Jesus constantly reminds the Twelve they are to be “servants” (diakonoi). At the Last Supper, Luke recounts that the Twelve had (another) argument about who of them was the greatest (22:24-27). Jesus forcefully reminds them that their leader and Jesus himself are servants (diakonōn). Had the Twelve forgotten so soon?
Even the solution is not very satisfying. Seven men are appointed to take care of the Hellenist widows. The English reader can easily miss the fact that each of the seven has a Greek (Hellenistic) name. There is not a single “Hebrew” among them. Although we are told that “The whole group of believers was united heart and soul” (Acts 4:32), a closer reading reveals deep fault lines within the community.
The work of Luke and John follows that of Mark and Matthew, and addresses a second or later generation of believers. The people addressed by Luke and, especially, John, had not known the earthly Jesus and most probably did not know anyone who had known the earthly Jesus. The second and all later generations of Christians faced a temptation that the first generation did not face — what we might call the Temptation of the Good Old Days.
The Temptation of the Good Old Days is basically an excuse. It begins, “If I had only lived during the time of Jesus and known him….” What follows is: “I would have found it easier to believe, I would be a more fervent disciple, I would have done heroic things and I certainly would have been better than I am now.” But, the reasoning goes, since I didn’t know Jesus, second class discipleship is good enough.
It is interesting to see how Luke and John handle this temptation. John’s recount about the unbelief of Thomas addresses this. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who do not see but believe,” he is addressing all believers who would follow and “not see” but believe with the faith of the first Easter. Thomas provides the setting for Jesus to give a special blessing for later generations of believers.
If we consider John a theologian, Luke is the historian. In the Acts of the Apostles he shows that the first generation of Christians was in many ways no different than all those that followed. The first generation had cheaters like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and had serious, indeed potentially lethal fault lines between different groups like the “Hellenists” and “Hebrews.” This situation impacted Paul and his, at times, bitter conflicts with “Judaizers.” Paul rebukes Peter for hypocrisy after “some of James’ (leader of the Jerusalem Christians) people” arrived and Peter stopped eating with Gentiles.
Luke is not writing some shocking exposé. He is far too much the historian, evangelist, and pastor for that. Rather, he is writing to let all generations of believers know that being a second (and later) generation Christian is by no means an excuse to be a second-class Christian.
The weaknesses, temptations, and all too human characteristics that we Christians have to live with in the 21st century existed in the first generation.
As with so much else in the New Testament, this realization is both a consolation and a challenge. The consolation is that we are not disadvantaged — to say nothing of handicapped — by not having known the earthly Jesus. He has in fact specially blessed us as the ones who do not see but nonetheless believe.
The challenge, of course, is that the Good Old Days excuse won’t work.
How does this connect to CNEWA’s world today?
Coincidentally, and tragically, widows and orphans very often the main recipients of CNEWA’s service (diakonia).
In the places where CNEWA works, violence and grinding poverty — which possesses a violence all its own — are prevalent. Women and children are often the ones most adversely affected.
Wars, conflicts, persecutions such as those committed by ISIS and others have killed tens of thousands of men — who have then left behind wives and children. Equally destructive, but often overlooked, is poverty. In some countries, men leave their wives to work in other countries. Many never return. Others simply abandon families they cannot support. In either case, the wives and children, in effect, become widows and orphans.
CNEWA supports orphanages, schools and training programs for widows — women scarred by both war and poverty — helping them to live with dignity and independence. It is a diakonia of which Jesus and Luke would approve.