We Christians are people-helpers. It’s in the Spirit-loaded software at new birth. Problem is, we often insist on preserving the right to be selective about the recipients of our aid, as though there’s some substantive difference between one kind of human and another. The earliest Christians discovered this tendency in themselves and made the necessary adjustments. Seems like we could benefit from a reminder to do the same.
During this time, as the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines. So the Twelve called a meeting of the disciples. They said, “It wouldn’t be right for us to abandon our responsibilities for preaching and teaching the Word of God to help with the care of the poor. So, friends, choose seven men from among you whom everyone trusts, men full of the Holy Spirit and good sense, and we’ll assign them this task. Meanwhile, we’ll stick to our assigned tasks of prayer and speaking God’s Word.”
The congregation thought this was a great idea. They went ahead and chose—
Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas, a convert from Antioch.
Then they presented them to the apostles. Praying, the apostles laid on hands and commissioned them for their task.
The Word of God prospered. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased dramatically. Not least, a great many priests submitted themselves to the faith. Acts 6:1-7 (The Message)
There’s wasn’t simply an administrative problem that was fixed with a more efficient distribution of food for widows. There was a cultural prejudice at play. The first Christians, most of whom were Jews, wrestled with whether or not to accept the non-Jews into the Church as equals. Though outnumbered by their Roman oppressors, in the Church, Jews held the status of the majority culture.
When he touched down on all the nationalities represented at Pentecost God made it clear at the gate that this was to be no nationalistic religion. National pride is one thing, but nationalistic prejudice is something altogether different. God’s one flame divided up into tongues of fire that lighted on each head, reinforcing the point that the Church is comprised of every culture, color, gender, and socioeconomic class.
Nevertheless, the Jewish Christians weren’t quite yet on board with God’s agenda to form a Church with equal status for all. Philip, one of the Greek-speaking deacons, ventured outside the box and evangelized Samaritans, but when Peter crossed the threshold of a Roman soldier named Cornelius hostile tweets of protest proliferated throughout the church!
These Gentiles can’t just waltz in here and expect to be treated equal with us!
They’ve done nothing but terrorize us while we paid the price over the centuries to give birth to Messiah.
We’ve paid all the dues and they just get in without cost? I don’t think so!
Sound familiar? It should.
Their prejudice was all it took to assemble the first let’s-get-this-right meeting of the big shots. You’d have thought they resolved it by then, but still it required a number of apostolic letters devoted to toppling cultural walls. And you’d think, with our twenty-pound study Bibles and twenty centuries of trial and a lot of error that we’d get it, but still we haven’t attained a “Classless Christianity”! We’re still hung up on color, culture, and socioeconomic privilege–– and I’m talking about the Church. It’s a good thing for us, though God doesn’t see “class” he is patient with us who are glacially slow to see the way he sees.
Does it seem to you that Jesus often moves people from the margin of “the picture” into the center and those from the picture’s center to the margin? If that doesn’t seem familiar to you, for starters take another look at Matthew 6 and Luke 6 and 16.
Back to the early Church and the widows’ food pantry, I’ll give them one thing; at least they knew to care for widows. They knew that they had to protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable. And from whence might they have derived their sense of compassion and social justice, but from our very own Bible? As a reminder, here are a few excerpts they must have been reading in their Bibles…
The LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. Deuteronomy 10:17-18
Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Isaiah 1:17
Woe to those who issue unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. Isaiah 10:1-2
Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of one another. Zechariah 7:9-10
I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widow and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice… Malachi 3:5
So their problem wasn’t whether or not to help widows. Since widows and all manner of other destitute folks were on God’s radar they had to be on their screens. It was no small matter for them to not only care about widows but they had to care for them. To care or not to care for widows wasn’t the question. Their question was “WHICH WIDOWS do we have to care for?” Sounds a lot like the question the young rich guy with political power asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
I doubt that it was a calculated thing, as though they sat down and decided to overlook the Grecian widows. But that’s how most prejudice occurs. It’s usually more inadvertent than intentional. We don’t usually realize that we put “our own kind” over “their kind.” In our enlightened times, our bigotry and greed is more subtle and sanitized, especially us church goers.
Once made aware of their oversight, they acknowledged their blunder and came up with an ingenious fix. If it’s Greeks that we’re slighting, let’s get all Greeks to run the pantry! (The names of the Seven “deacons” were all Greek names.) In order to stop slighting the slighted, they recruited some of the slighted to be in charge! They took the obliteration of their prejudice so seriously that they transferred those on the margins to the center. Justice was served for the widows.
Tim Keller says, “The righteous are willing to disadvantage themselves to advantage the community; the wicked are willing to disadvantage the community to advantage themselves.” Keller went on to give an amazing anecdote of this.
“In the nineteenth century one out of twenty-five people in the town of Chilmark was deaf and in another small settlement almost a quarter of the people could not hear…
“Instead of making the nonhearing minority learn to read lips, the whole hearing majority learned “signing.” All the hearing became bilingual, so deaf people were able to enter into full social participation. As a result of “doing justice” (disadvantaging themselves) the majority…included people in the social fabric who in other places would have fallen through it.
“They changed their culture in order to include an otherwise disadvantaged minority but in the process made themselves and their society richer… The strong must disadvantage themselves for the weak, the majority for the minority, or the community frays and the fabric breaks.”