The Fifth Sunday of Easter – 10 May 2020
Lectionary Readings: Acts 6:1-7; Ps 33:1-2, 4-5, 18-19; 1 Peter 2:4-9; John 14:1-12
Theme: Forming Faith Communities: The values that endure
The season of Easter presents us with a unique opportunity every year to reflect on the life of the early believers and to consider our own communities in the light of these origins. The first reading is the classic account of the “seven” who were chosen to serve (the first deacons). In this text, the apostles appear to draw on the wisdom of their Hebrew tradition in order to resolve the pressing issues and in this way demonstrate both continuity and change at work in the formation of the Christian community.
The root of the problem seems to have been a division between the “Hellenists” and the “Hebrews.” It is suggested that the complaint concerning ‘the unfair distribution of food to Hellenist widows’ was pointing to this much deeper issue (Brown, 739). In contrast to the idyllic descriptions of life among these first groups of converts, which Luke presents in Acts 2:37-47 and 4:32-37, this reading highlights the real tensions Christian communities can face in the practical day-to-day living out of the Gospel. The way in which these tensions and the resulting conflicts are resolved is based on the quality of leadership provided in these communities. In this passage, the Twelve draw on their Hebrew tradition (from Exodus and Deuteronomy) and call the community together to decide on a response. They state that their chief calling is the spreading of the Word of God and suggest that the community choose from among themselves those ‘filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom’ (6:3) to serve the poor materially. The final decision “pleased the whole community” (6:5).
Delegation of some authority had become necessary within the community. As stated above, an example of the Hebrew tradition is found in the establishment of the Israelite town council in Deuteronomy 16:18 (Brown, 740). The Twelve requested that the Hellenistic community choose men from their own people and they were put in charge of the distribution activity. Today we would view this as an application of the principle of subsidiarity, which is a deeply theological concept, intended to uphold the dignity of and respect for individuals and local communities in the decision-making that affects their own lives. The passage goes on to list the qualities necessary for the exercise of this new form of leadership. The apostles asked the community to select individuals of “good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (6:3). The Hebrew members of the Jerusalem community would have recognized echoes of their tradition as found in the Book of Deuteronomy which states: “Choose for each of your tribes individuals who are wise, discerning and reputable to be your leaders (1:13). Exodus is even more expansive regarding the qualities that are required: “You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain” (18:21). In their study of these two Hebrew passages, Jewish scholars point to a Midrash that attempts to account for a list of three qualities in Deuteronomy on the one hand, and four in Exodus on the other. It suggests that the two lists must be “combined” to give a total of seven attributes (the perfect number), with a judge ideally, but not exclusively, possessing all seven qualities (R. Warshauer).
For Reflection and Discussion: Today’s first reading affirms the enduring biblical values that should be foundational to any ministerial or vocational call to leadership. These values will also enable us to live fully what we were created to be, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9), and to witness to Christ who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). How is this reflected in your leadership of your community, in whatever capacity this may be?
Bibliography: Brown, Fitzmyer and Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (New Jersey, 1990); Rabbi L. Warshauer, “Attributes of a Leader: Moses shares his views on leadership”, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/attributes-of-a-leader/