Addendum to a Homily: Acts 6 and Tribalism

Thoughts inspired by Bishop Barron’s homily on the appointment of St. Stephen and the first deacons in Acts 6

Fra Angelico, detail of Niccoline Chapel fresco depicting St. Peter consecrating St. Stephen (kneeling) and the other six first deacons.
Fra Angelico, detail of Niccoline Chapel fresco depicting St. Peter consecrating St. Stephen (kneeling) and the other six first deacons. (photo: Register Files / Public Domain)

This week, for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, our family streamed Bishop Barron’s Mass. I’m a longtime vocal admirer of Bishop Barron, and I always appreciate his thoughtful expositions on the scriptures. Today’s homily was no exception; as usual, he had many good thoughts.

The text he preached on, from Acts 6, happens to be an important one to me, on two counts: It’s the account of the choosing of the first deacons, including my namesake, St. Stephen.

As Bishop Barron explained, a division arose between the Hellenists (that is, Greek-speaking Jewish Christians from the Dispora outside Israel) and the Hebrews (that is, Jewish Christians from Israel who would normally have spoken Aramaic) over the daily distribution of food to widows.

When the matter came to the attention of the Twelve, they instructed the communities to pick seven qualified men whom the Twelve would appoint to the task of distributing the food equitably.

It happened, though, that during his homily Bishop Barron made a slight but repeated mistake: On at least three occasions he said it was the Hebrews murmuring against the Hellenists rather than the other way around. Then, looking at the text, he caught himself and said, "No, I’m getting that backwards.”

All public speakers are aware of the danger of misspeaking and saying the opposite of what you intended. I’ve done it countless times, including in homilies. Often enough the slip isn’t terribly important, or the listeners get the point anyway. One is fortunate if, like Bishop Barron in this case, one manages to catch and explicitly correct the error. (I have seldom been that fortunate.)

In this case, though, the slip obscures an important dimension of what is happening in this passage: one I think worth highlighting, since it goes to the heart of the gospel message.

For the record, I’m a big believer in receiving homilies non-critically: that is, in focusing on whatever one finds to be good or useful, filing away for future contemplation whatever one may not understand, and, as much as possible, passing in silence over anything one may happen find to be less helpful, not to say what one might have wished the homilist said, but didn’t.

If, though, we are unclear whether the Hellenists were murmuring against the Hebrews or vice versa, we won’t recognize the significance of the fact that some widows were getting their share of the food while others weren’t.

It was the Hellenist widows — the widows from the Greek-speaking community of Jewish Christians from outside Israel — who were being neglected in the daily distribution of food to the needy.

Why were the Hellenists being neglected? Evidently it was the Hebrew Christians who were distributing the food.

After all, the Apostles were all Hebrews. The whole company of Jesus’ disciples prior to Pentecost were Hebrews. On Pentecost, when Jews from all nations were gathered in Jerusalem for the extended Passover festival heard the Twelve preaching, each in his own language, we can reasonably assume that among the 3,000 who were baptized were many non-Hebrew Jews.

Even so, it seems that in Acts 6 the Hebrew Christians were still the dominant community in the early Church — perhaps the numerical majority, and certainly the ones organizing and overseeing projects like the distribution of food to the needy.

Perhaps the Hebrew Christian community was wealthier than the Hellenist Christians. Or perhaps as all the converts turned over their possessions to the Twelve, the Twelve entrusted the task of managing the Church’s goods and seeing to the care of widows to those who were closest to them, who happened to be other Hebrew Christians.

In any case, we have absolutely no reason to ascribe malice or deliberate prejudice to the Hebrew Christians. Luke doesn’t say that the Hellenists were being deliberately deprived — only that they were being neglected or overlooked.

Either the Hebrew Christians distributing the food weren’t aware of the Hellenist widows or they simply didn’t think of them. Either way, the Hellenist widows were relatively invisible to the Hebrew Christians, who were not of their tribe.

Bishop Barron’s takeaway from all this was that as the Church grows and succeeds, it gets Satan’s attention, and he responds by fomenting both opposition from outside the Church and division within.

At the same time, it wasn’t the role of the Twelve to micromanage the solution, nor to leave the community to solve the problem on their own. The Twelve gave direction; the community chose their own qualified men, and the Apostles ratified their choice: apostolic leadership and community in cooperation.

All of that is absolutely true, and a good takeaway.

Here’s another important takeaway: As the Church’s calling to be catholic — universal and worldwide — manifests itself in bringing into one community members of every tribe, people, language, and nation, the work of tearing down dividing walls, accomplished in principle by Christ in the Paschal Mystery, will continue to challenge his fallible followers.

Old habits die hard, including old habits of “us” and “them.” Again, I’m not talking about hostility or malice. I’m merely talking about taking for granted one’s own experiences and by extension one’s own community. (As Bishop Barron rightly points out, it’s no accident that the seven deacons all have Greek names; not only that, one of them was a Gentile convert to Judaism before becoming a Christian.)

What’s more, this is especially easy to do when you’re the majority, or when your community is wealthier, or when you’re the established local population and others are outsiders — foreigners or immigrants.

Jesus came to reconcile human beings to God and to one another. That’s the gospel in a single sentence.

Whatever creates barriers between us and God or between “us” and “them” is anti-gospel. Every form of tribalism pitting us against them is anti-gospel.

Tribalism has been with us since New Testament times. It remains with us today. Overcoming it, especially in the Church, remains one of the most serious challenges facing Christians today.