Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Sirach 14 – “Happy the man whose own soul does not accuse him, and who has never given up hope” (14:2).
I can relate to this one very deeply. I have not always been a “believer.” Or, it’s more complicated than that – I have not always felt comfortable with the very deep sense I always seemed to have that there was/is a God. I’ve always had a deep intuition that there must be, but my “reason” has not always been comfortable with that intuition. For some years I just turned my back on religion, but eventually decided it was more “rational” for me to concede that a good deal of what I most deeply “rested on” had to do with an acceptance of the divine, a connection with the “cloud of witnesses” the Judeo-Christian tradition offered me. So I again become a person of “faith” and “hope.” Can I KNOW that there is a God? Can I KNOW that the Christian message is THE TRUTH? I cannot KNOW. But I can live by it; I can rest comfortably in it; I can leave this life knowing that I lived well, lived faithful to a message that raises me to life every day, every minute.
“The eye of the grasping man is not content with his portion, greed shrivels up the soul” (9).
“My son, treat yourself as well as you can afford, and bring worthy offerings to the Lord. . . . Do not refuse yourself the good things of today, do not let your share of what is lawfully desired pass you by” (14:11-14).
“Every living thing grows old like a garment, the age-old law is ‘Death must be’. Like foliage growing on a bushy tree, some leaves falling, others growing, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies, another is born” (14:17-18).
Then, to conclude, he calls them a “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears . . .forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (7:51). They become enraged at him.
Suddenly, he has a vision of God’s glory and “Jesus standing at the right hand of God,” (7:55) which he proclaims to the people. At this they rush against him, drag him out of the city and stone him, laying their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. Stephen kneels and cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” and he dies (7:60).
The interesting thing about Stephens’ preaching to me is his reliance upon a narrative approach to elucidate what it is God wants the people to understand. Stephen’s memory of the details of the story is not perfect—it is as he remembers it, that God calls Abraham out of Mesopotamia (not Haran), that Moses is forty or eighty or one hundred and twenty at different points along the way. He clearly uses the numbers in a schematic kind of way, probably from an extra-biblical tradition. This shows that it is the community’s use of the story that counts as much as the details of the story itself.
The points of the story that seem important to Stephen are the continuity of God’s care for his people and work to redeem them, the tendency of the people to reject his prophets, particularly Moses and by implication Jesus who is for Stephen clearly the prophet God was to raise up “like Moses.” And the particular point Stephen wants the people to hear is that the time of the Temple is over. God does not dwell in it, but in Jesus and in the creation. It is hard to know if the thing that makes the people murderously mad is his accusation of their stiff-necked refusal to be led by God, his denigration of the Temple or his claim to see Jesus at God’s right hand—I rather think it was that.