Serving the Poor, Serving the Lord

Taken from Catholic Exchange
by Dr. Mark Giszczak

Serving the Poor, Serving the Lord

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.

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