The National Catholic Review
For the fifth Sunday of Easter, the first reading continues with the Acts of the Apostles and the passage chosen raises a number of historical questions. Luke again makes the point that "the number of disciples continued to grow (6:1)," which directs us not only to the acceptance of the message in general, but the growth of the Church in Judea and Jerusalem specifically. Much of Acts will be taken up, especially beginning with Chapter 10, describing the success of the Gentile mission, but one of the reasons Luke might focus on the growth of the Church at these early stages is to make clear that Jews themselves were willing hearers of the Gospel. Remember, Luke has spoken earlier of "about three thousand (2:41)," or "about five thousand (4:4)" responding to the message. Is it on Luke’s mind to make certain that Gentile readers know that the Gospel message was not rejected where it was born? Are there questions amongst Gentiles as to why those whom first received the message seem to have said no to it? Second, Luke states that "the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (6:1)." Many scholars have pointed out that Luke presents an idealized picture of the earliest Church, as demonstrated with his picture of the Church holding "all things in common" (2:44). But this notice of the neglect of "Hellenist" widows and the response of the Church to rectify the situation suggests the acceptance by the Apostles of the criticism of inequality in the daily distribution of food. Most scholars accept that "Hellenists" and "Hebrews" refers to the common languages of these two Jewish-Christian groups and gives us an early example of a cultural divide in the early Church. Not an ideal situation, but a real one. The attempt to heal this breach was to choose from among the disciples "seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and wisdom, whom we shall appoint to this task (6:3)." It is not clear that these seven were chosen from amongst the Hellenists alone, but the names of the seven are Greek names. Are they to care for the Hellenist widows alone or for the widows of the whole Church? (see Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina. Volume 5 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992) 110). Whatever the case, the seven chosen are seen as the first "deacons" according to the tradition of the Church. In 6:1 the widows are said to be neglected in the daily distribution. In Greek, the word diakonia appears, so the phrase could be read as "the daily service". In 6:2 and 6:4, forms of the word diakonia appear again, with the seven said to be devoted to the "service" or "ministry" of the table, that is, the distribution of the food, and the Twelve devoted to the "service" or "ministry" of the Word. The word diakonia (or its verbal form diakoneo) does mean "service" or "ministry," with the sense of "taking care of," so those seven who had hands laid on them have been chosen and appointed for this special task of ministering through caring for the widows. We only meet two of the seven again, though, Stephen and Philip, and when we do, they are not waiting on tables or distributing food. Stephen is doing great wonders and signs (Acts 6:8) and chapter seven will describe his martyrdom. Philip will be seen proclaiming the Messiah (8:5-13; 26-40) and was said to have had four unmarried daughters who were prophets (21:8-9). That is, the only two "deacons" who are discussed again seem to have broadened the mandate given to them. What does all this mean? Even in an "ideal" history such as Luke’s the reality of life comes shining through. Development is a constant in the life of the Church, as are disagreements and even the neglect of certain parties. It is important to be ready constantly for the movement of the Spirit in the life of the Church because change happens and we need to be open and alert to it in order to be guided in the way of the Spirit, to respond to new situations and to make certain no one is being overlooked. John W. Martens