This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
POPE FRANCIS GIVES FIRST CHRISTMAS MESSAGE: “PEACE IS AN EVERYDAY COMPROMISE”
ACTS 7: 51-59
51- And Stephen said, “You obstinate people, heathen in your thinking, heathen in the way you are listening to me now! It is always the same—you never fail to resist the Holy Spirit! Just as your fathers did so are you doing now. Can you name a single prophet whom your fathers did not persecute? They killed the men who long ago foretold the coming of the just one, and now in our own day you have become betrayers and his murderers. You are the men who have received the Law of God miraculously, by the hand of angels, and you are the men who have disobeyed it!”
54-55 These words stung them to fury and they ground their teeth at him in rage. Stephen, filled through all his being with the Holy Spirit, looked steadily up into Heaven. He saw the glory of God, and Jesus himself standing at his right hand.
56 “Look!” he exclaimed, “the heavens are opened and I can see the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand!”
57-58 At this they put their fingers in their ears. Yelling with fury, as one man they made a rush at him and hustled him out of the city and stoned him. The witnesses of the execution flung their clothes at the feet of a young man by the name of Saul.
59 So they stoned Stephen while he called upon God, and said, “Jesus, Lord, receive my spirit!”
60 Then, on his knees, he cried in ringing tones, “Lord, forgive them for this sin.” And with these words he fell into the sleep of death, 8 1a while Saul gave silent assent to his execution.
These words conclude the story of Stephen the first Christian martyr whom the church remembers on this day, 26th December, associating him with the birth of Christ and the massacre of children by Herod. The book of Acts tells us that he was appointed as a Deacon by the Jerusalem church to undertake duties of pastoral care so that the Apostles could concentrate on preaching the Gospel. His name is Greek, but we can assume he was a Jew who shared the Greek language and culture of the Roman Empire. As a believer in Jesus Messiah he was particularly obnoxious to those Jews who resented and opposed anything new. According to The Acts, they contrived by means of false charges to have Stephen accused of blasphemy and brought before the Sanhedrin.
Luke gives Stephen a speech which he doubtless considered brave and faithful. Now Luke is a master at this type of thing so if the reader detects just a touch of aggression in the speech, we can assume that he meant it to be there or that his own faith also contained these characteristics. His hearers must have been particularly stung by Stephen’s use of the word “heathen” to describe their intolerance. But then, perhaps he was dealing with people like those modern believers who use the name of God or Allah to justify killing their opponents. May Stephen’s (And Luke’s) anger be a just reaction to the use of God’s name for persecution?
Still, having taken all that into account, I remain just a little unhappy with Stephen’s speech as created by Luke. I exempt the historical Stephen from this feeling because there’s no doubt that Luke made up this speech. He would have had no access to what Stephen actually said to the Sanhedrin. There’s something in the way Stephen uses the pronoun “you” to describe his opponents when of course he could as a fellow Jew, have said, “we”. But no, Stephen as Luke presents him takes no responsibility for the alleged wickedness of Israel’s history. He stands outside it, in judgement. It may be that the language used here reflects the separation of Christian and Orthodox Jew which was almost complete by Luke’s time and on its way to becoming one of the fundamental barriers in Christendom, with all its terrible consequences.
How dare I accuse of the Bible, the Word of God, of being complicit in a process that led to Auschwitz? As a disciple of Jesus I believe I am commanded to seek out and expose the roots of prejudice wherever they exist. This is not so much a criticism of the original authors who wrote under pressure of circumstances. Doubtless Matthew’s “Let his blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:26) and John’s persistent use of the word “Jews” to describe the murderous opponents of Jesus also flow from the painful expulsion of Christian believers from orthodox synagogues in the period after the destruction of the Temple in 70CE. Rather it is a criticism of later generations of the Christian church whose doctrine of Holy Scripture turned human faith into an inerrant Word of God.
I say that if the bible is the Word of God then it is a word made flesh, a human word, spoken by flesh and blood people and therefore open to error. Its divinity is only manifested when we treat it as human, for example when we remember its place and time of composition, its language, its culture, its science, its politics, as well as its faith, and recognise its limitations. This is similar to our view of the divinity of Jesus: that He is divine not in spite of his humanity, but in it and through it.
I make no apology for introducing this argument on St. Stephen’s day. He was martyred by people who could not accept that he, a mere human being, subject to all the uncertainties of human life, could not be forced to deny his trust in Jesus by the bullying of those who claimed ownership of God’s Word, amongst whom, Luke tells us, was a certain Pharisee called Saul, later to become the Apostle to the gentiles.