Serving the Poor, Serving the Lord

Wednesday, September 13, 2017



May 18, 2014
Fifth Sunday of Easter
First Reading: Acts 6:1-7

Should we serve the Lord or serve the poor? Sometimes we face this question because we simply lack time. What’s more important: daily prayer or volunteering at the local homeless shelter? Is giving to the parish or giving to charity higher on the list? Early on in the life of the Church, the apostles confronted a similar conundrum (Acts 6:1-7). Part of their ministry included distributing food to the poor, but as the community became larger and larger, it was hard to ensure an equitable distribution of goods.

Social Context

To understand what’s going on here, we have to dig into the social context of the problem. First, the Jerusalem community is divided into “Hellenists” and “Hebrews.” Since no Gentiles had become Christians at this point, the simplest explanation is that the Hellenists are Greek-speaking Jews and the “Hebrews” are Aramaic-speaking Jews. The Greek-speaking widows are “being neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1). But what is that? Why widows? In the ancient world, there was no life insurance and women generally did not have employment outside the home. In many cases, widows could not even legally inherit whatever their husbands had left behind for it would be designated for a male heir. What this means is that when a woman’s husband died, she would have to rely on other relatives, extended family and the wider community for financial support. In the tight-knit early Christian community (Acts 2:42; 4:32-37), the widows would have relied on the group for their daily sustenance—a kind of early Christian welfare system. Sadly, natural biases could sneak into the group and those appointed by the apostles to distribute food could easily be swayed by considerations such as whether someone speaks the same language. While understandable, such prejudice is not Christian.

Notably, the idea of taking care of poor widows was a constant social concern in the Old Testament (Exod 22:22; Jer 7:6; Zech 7:10). In fact, the poor in the Old Testament are often regarded as those to be cared for (Deut 15:11) and giving to them is seen as a good deed (Ps 41:1). These Jewish roots of care for the poor were contrary to Roman values that looked down on the poor, neglected them or even manipulated them by buying their “friendship” with money. The Christian ideal of caring for the poor, which the apostles exhibit in this passage, has deep Jewish roots that oppose the wider cultural values.

Division of Labor

The apostles recognize the inequitable distribution as a serious problem that needs a concrete solution. However, they also want to respect the primacy of the Word of God. In order to fulfill justice, they appoint deacons to assist them. The deacons are originally created to “serve (diakoneo) at table” so the apostles can devote themselves to preaching. The apostles list several qualifications for deacons: wisdom, good reputation and being filled with the Spirit. (Later in the New Testament, 1 Tim 3 lists further qualifications.) The apostles propose that by dividing the labor, the deacons can devote themselves to “serving at table” while the apostles can devote themselves to prayer and the “service (diakonia) of the word.” The apostles consult with the whole community and by doing this, allow the community to work out a solution to the problem as a group. Luke tells us the apostles’ proposal was “pleasing” to the group, meaning that they approved it (similar to Acts 15:22). In fact, the community chooses the candidates to “set before” the apostles (6:6). The seven men chosen as deacons all appear to be “Hellenists,” that is, Greek-speaking Jews. Luke only tells us more about the deacons Stephen and Philip, who will star in the narrative of Acts 7–8. Finally, the apostles lay their hands on the seven men, ordaining them for ministry to God’s people.

Result: Evangelistic success

Acts 6:7 summarizes the state of the community after the appointment of deacons: “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples in Jerusalem increased greatly; even a large group of priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (NAB). While Luke is giving us a mere snapshot, I think it indicates that the problem was solved. The apostles and the community worked together to solve a serious problem. They were able to enhance their service to the poor by appointing trustworthy men to oversee it and they were able to enhance their evangelistic preaching because they could devote more of their time to it. On the human level, this story shows us that people can accomplish great things when they work together. On the divine level, it shows us that God can help us order our relations with one another so we can be a more effective community.

The Lesson of Balance

A few lessons stand out from this passage. First, oftentimes a practical problem needs a practical solution. The apostles did not sit back and theorize about inequities; they acted. Their decisiveness is inspiring and demonstrates good leadership. Second, while the apostles are Jesus’ appointed few, they consult with the whole community to develop an agreeable response to the problem. They don’t rule the community with an iron fist, but listen to others carefully before deciding what to do. Finally, the apostles want to both serve the poor and serve the Word. They realize that their role is primarily focused on the tasks of prayer and preaching, so they delegate some of their authority to the deacons. The community as a whole maintains a balance of ministries between preaching and caring for the poor. Perhaps our own communities, our own giving of time and money, can reflect such a balance so we too can serve both the poor and the Word.

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