First Reading: Acts 6:1-7
The Birth of the Diaconate
Have you seen a situation that seemed unfair? How was it resolved?
1 At that time, the number of followers kept increasing. Soon, the followers who came from different parts of the Roman Empire had a complaint. They said local followers neglected to give their widows a fair share of the community's food and charity.
2 The Twelve Apostles called the community together so the matter could be discussed. "We don't like to stop preaching so we can concentrate on this problem," the Twelve said. 3 "So, brothers and sisters, choose seven men from the community. They must have a good reputation. They must be wise and full of God's Spirit. We will give them the job of taking care of our poor. We will always pray and preach God's word."
5 The community was satisfied with the answer the Apostles gave. So the community chose seven men for the job. The first was Stephen; he was full of faith and God's Spirit. They also chose Phillip, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. Nicolaus became a Jew and originally lived in Antioch.
6 The community had these men stand in front of the Apostles. The Twelve prayed then laid their hands on each man's head.
7 God's word kept spreading and the number of followers in Jerusalem grew larger and largers. Even some of the priests from the Temple believed in Jesus!
1 In these days, as (the number of) the disciples kept growing, there was a complaint of the Greek (followers) against the Hebrew (followers), that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (of funds). 2 Having called the group of the followers (together), the Twelve said, "It is not enjoyable for us, abandoning (the ministry of) the word of God, to serve tables. 3 So, brothers, look for seven men of good repute among you, full of (the) Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint for this need. 4 But we will remain constant in prayer and in service to the word (of God)." 5 (Their) word(s) were pleasing before all in the group and (the group) chose Stephen, full of faith and the Holy Spirit, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a convert of Antioch. 6 (The group) stood (them) before the Apostles. Having prayed, (the Apostles) laid hands on (the seven). 7 The word of God kept spreading, and the number of disciples in Jerusalem kept growing larger; (even) many of the priests obeyed the faith.
6:1 "the Greek (followers) against the Hebrew (followers)" The early community in Jerusalem was divided two groups. First, there were the native Jewish inhabitants of the city and surrounding Judea that spoke Aramaic as a first language. Next, there were Greek speaking Jews from the Diaspora that settled in the city. While they shared a common faith in Jesus and a common religious heritage, language and culture divided them. On the one hand, the local Jewish-Christians were parochial and inclusive; they looked with disdain upon the general Greek culture which was not there own. On the other hand, the Greek-speaking Jewish-Christians felt an openness and accommodation to the culture of the "pagans." So, a dispute between the groups was not unexpected.
"their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution (of funds)" Many Jewish men, both locals and those in the Diaspora, desired to die in the city of God, Jerusalem. Many times this final pilgrimage depleted family savings. The resulting widows were left destitute and homeless. To support the poor, generous Jews in the city distributed moneys to these women. The Christian community did the same with their widows.
6:2 "abandoning (the ministry of) the word of God, to serve tables" The Apostles were called to proclaim the Good News. Care of the poor was a necessary, but secondary concern. Connecting the care of the widows with the idea of serving tables might be explained by an early tradition. Before sharing the Eucharistic meal, the community would gather together an offering of food and materials. This offering would be distributed to the poor. Hence, the distribution of funds, food, and other charitable donations was seen as "serving tables."
6:3 "Nicolaus, a convert of Antioch" Nicolaus was a convert to Judaism who later joined the Christian community in Jerusalem.
Many people point to Acts 6:1-7 as the birth of the diaconate, an ordained ministry within the Church. The word "deacon" came from the word "diakonia," which meant "service at the table." Indeed, the noun "distribution" was "diakonia." And, the verb "serve at table" to which the Apostles objected was "diakoneo." [6:1-2]
The early Christian community connected the idea of the waiter with service to the poor widows. As the note above mentioned, the distribution of the community's material offerings became the ministry of the deacon. Over time, the station of the deacon took on a liturgical function that emphasized the servant's role at the community's "table of the Lord."
We should note the characteristics of the servants in 6:3: good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom. The first attribute was public; these men could not embarrass the Christian community since they had a solid character. The second attribute was faith oriented; these men had charisms the community recognized, especially wisdom (one of the gifts of the Spirit). Their gifts were different from the Apostles, who were called to a ministry of prayer and preaching.
While all baptized Christians are called to service, deacons should have a special place in our parish communities. They represent the community's spirit of giving at the Lord's Table.
How does your community honor its deacon(s)?