Monday, August 05, 2013

Cross-Cultural Complications 2

... continued from Saturday.
So there was a daily distribution of food.  Certain men--probably not Peter or John themselves--took the donations from those with extra and distributed them among the widows in the community. No doubt taking care of those who could not take care of themselves was a never ending challenge for Jerusalem Christians. Some fifteen years later when the apostle Paul met with Peter, John, and James, the brother of Jesus, they would urge Paul to remember the poor in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:10). The offering that Paul later raised in his churches and brought to Jerusalem may very well have been for these poor (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:1-4).

In the process, the Aramaic-speaking widows were receiving the help they needed, but apparently the Greek-speaking widows were largely being missed, hopefully unintentionally. On the one hand, it is easy to see how it could happen unintentionally--out of sight out of mind.  You don't worship with these people. You don't move in the same social or work circles.  You never run into them, so you don't see them.  You forget that there are those all around you in need whom you don't see.

This sort of thing happens just as often today as ever. People in need can be living all around your church or your home that you just do not see. They are suffering in silence.  It could be obvious if you were looking, but nothing is forcing you to look, and they slip past you unnoticed.

Of course it could have happened intentionally too. "We take care of our own." I would be surprised if there wasn't some prejudice in the early church.  We are the Aramaic-speakers, the "Hebrews of the Hebrews" (cf. Phil. 3:5).  They are the Diaspora Jews.  We're purer than they are.  We're better than they are. [1] Our widows deserve more. Let them fend for themselves.

Whatever the motivations, it would be easy to see Peter taken a little off guard. Does he sound a little defensive when he tells them it isn't his job to wait on tables (6:2)?  His preaching and teaching ministry is too important to waste time on those sorts of things. Sounds like the rationalization of someone who is unexpectedly confronted with an embarrassing fault or mistake. No one is too important to take care of widows--certainly Jesus wasn't!

Acts tells the story in a way that helps Peter and the disciples save face with Theophilus and other readers for their oversight. But we can hear hints of early tensions even in the solution. We like to think of the six men who were now expected to take care of widows as the earliest Christian "deacons," although the passage does not actually call them by this term. [2] But this was not likely a group appointed to take care of all the Christian widows in Jerusalem so that the disciples could be spiritual and untainted by such menial tasks.

If you look at the names of the six, they do not read as a balanced mixture of Aramaic- and Greek-speaking ministers. These are all Greek-speaking Jews, and one of them isn't even a Jew at all but a convert to Judaism who was born a Gentile. [3] In other words, the leaders approved outsiders to take care of outsiders. Rather than engage in the uncomfortable task of working on a less familiar language in a less than familiar cross-cultural context, they empowered the outsiders to help themselves.

What follows is an indication that the apostles were not only failing the Hellenists when it came to food.  We do not find Stephen and Philip waiting on tables in the chapters that follow.  We find them preaching.  Stephen ends up stoned because of preaching in the Synagogue of the Freedmen.  Acts does not call Philip a deacon but Philip, "the evangelist."

The implication is that Jerusalem leaders like Peter were not managing to minister to the spiritual needs of Greek-speaking Jews either, beyond the material needs of widows. It is a reminder that we cannot all do everything. Even if it was embarrassing for this deficiency to go public, the result was good. Spiritual leaders emerged who could minister effectively to Greek-speaking Jews. The ministry task became distributed.

A gifted leader knows when to delegate. A pastor who insists on doing everything in a local church is destined to have a small congregation until God or others step in. Some of us are more gifted than others.  But even the most gifted, "type A" personality--those who are willing to sacrifice their family and health because they insist on doing everything alone--could not fully minister to a congregation of 200.  The Holy Spirit will empower others to step in the gap if we don't recognize the need.

So God used the conflict over the Greek-speaking widows as an opportunity to cross a barrier with the good news.  The barrier was one of language and culture, although the Hellenists were still Jews. Peter and the Jerusalem leaders may not have even seen the need and were probably a little defensive when the tension came to a head.

Hopefully, they realized that God's work is not about our individual egos. It's about God's mission in the world. Even when our own deficiencies facilitate the spread of the good news, we should be so devoted to God that we rejoice.

[1] I wouldn't be surprised if this dynamic was part of Paul's own psyche. Did he go to Jerusalem to prove himself and his purity?  Did he initially begrudge his Roman citizenship and his Greek-speaking identity?  Did this element play into his zeal as a Pharisee and his initial zeal against Greek-speaking Jewish believers?  After he believed, did it then play into his staunch opposition to any favoritism based on keeping the purity and separation rules of Judaism?

[2] In fact, the book of Acts as a whole never uses this term anywhere.  Acts mentions elders (e.g., 14:23), but it does not mention "deacon" as a particular office or function for individuals in the early church.

[3] Nicolas from Antioch would have been circumcised as part of the process of becoming a Jewish proselyte.

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

"...the leaders approved outsiders to take care of outsiders..." I wonder if that means that there is a denomination today that would support me being a Pastor for the orphaned Children of God -the estranged Church, the Christians who cannot get into a church (for whatever reason, a lack of a judgmental attitude on our part is perceived by the estranged as our being compassionate towards them). The calling is simply this: because they belong to our body, if they cannot connect with us, we must go and connect with them. I am willing to go, and have gone. But some initials after my name would help the secular world, who cares for some of the needs of the orphaned Children, understand who I am. With the right initials after my name the secular world, that values formal education and having initials after one's name, would permit me entrance into their institutions to take care of them, too.