The 6th chapter of Luke’s Acts of the Apostles which we started to read on Saturday of the 2nd week of Easter begins with a social problem we shouldn’t overlook. Some new converts to Christianity are being treated unfairly. “As the number of disciples continued to grow, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”( Acts 6:1. Saturday, 2nd week of Easter)
If we substitute “Immigrants” for “Hellenists” in that text a more familiar situation emerges. New-comers are plainly not treated fairly, especially the poorer among them and they’re looking for something more.
The “Hebrews” are the first followers of Jesus, mostly Jews from Galilee. They’re Jewish Christians at home in the Jewish world, who fit into the religious and political Judaism of their time in spite of the friction that came from following Jesus of Nazareth.
They’re the establishment.
In every age immigrants, once they gain a footing in their new home, learn to speak out for their needs. The Hellenists, led by Stephen, began to speak out. Stephen’s fiery words seem to be only about religious matters, but he’s also criticizing the closed world of Judaism. Should we add the closed world of early Jewish Christianity as well?
Stephen’s criticism cost him his life and initiated the Jewish reaction that led to the expulsion of the Hellenists. They become immigrants again but, as Luke notes, they bring the gospel to new peoples.
It’s a misconception to believe, as some do, that the early spread of Christianity was due solely to the genius of Paul the Apostle. Paul was a great figure in the spread of Christianity, but the Acts of the Apostles read this week reminds us there were others, like the deacon Philip, who brought the gospel to Samaria. (Wednesday) We wonder, too, about the Ethiopian official Philip baptizes. He surely brought the gospel to Africa. (Thursday) There were many others, not just apostles, not solely Paul, who fulfilled a divine plan they hardly understood.
As he concentrates on Paul’s mission, Luke pays scant attention to the other missionaries who brought the gospel to world around them. Nor does Luke recognize social factors, like immigration, that led the spread of Christianity. He doesn’t tell the whole story.
We are in the midst of an age of massive immigration, due to wars, climate change, religious discrimination and other issues. We tend to see these issues only in social or political terms.
This week’s readings from Luke remind us there’s more. God’s plan is also being fulfilled.