Octave of St. Stephen
Behold I send unto you prophets and wise men and scribes, and some of them you will put to death and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city: that upon you may come all the just blood that hath been shed upon the earth, from the blood of Abel the just to the blood of Zecharias the son of Berachias, whom ye killed between the temple and the altar. Amen, I say to you, all these things shall come upon this generation.
Today is the Octave of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast we celebrated last week. We then considered the events that led to his martyrdom as recorded in the narrative of the Acts of the Apostles. Today we will consider the Gospel for this feast, in which Jesus warns his followers that as he has met with persecution and death in this world, so too would they. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God in his own person and ministry meant blessedness for those with eyes to see it, for it was the fulfilment of the prophets of old. But for those who refused it, their blood would be required. Jesus foresaw not only his own persecution and death, but the persecution of his own followers and the death of some of them. There would be a coming clash between the Jewish nation and the might of the Roman empire, in which the sins of the people would meet their retribution. The temple would be destroyed and the city would fall to the Romans. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killedst the prophets and stonest them that are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered together thy children, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not.? Behold your house shall be left unto you desolate. For I say to you that ye shall not see me henceforth, till you say: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” At one level Jesus is referring to the failure of the people in Jerusalem to respond to his message of peace (we can read about his Jerusalem ministry in St. John’ Gospel), but at a deeper level he is also speaking in the name of the divine Wisdom in saying that for the people to reject him is to reject God. The time will come when God’s kingdom will finally be consummated on earth as it is in heaven, but then it will be too late for those who have refused to repent. He had come to that which was his own, but his own had received him not. Light had come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
Jesus stood in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets who preached truth to power. The Israelites had been formed by their experience of slavery in Egypt. They had received the Law given through Moses in which the people bound themselves together by their covenant with God. They were called to repudiate the type of society that they had left behind in Egypt, which was one in which the strong ruled over the weak, and instead to create a society where all were equal in the eyes of God, including those whom people most looked down upon, namely the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. But when they entered the promised land the Israelites were unfaithful to the covenant. They chose kings to rule over them and created their own system of power and control like the one they had left behind in Egypt. The prophets were those who preached truth to power in this context. Whereas the kings exercised power, the prophets preached righteousness. The prophet Nathan rebuked King David for his adultery with Bathsheba. Elijah rebuked Ahab for the seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. Isaiah condemned the false security that the kingdom derived from military alliances with other nations and looked forward to an age when the swords would be beaten into ploughshares and the wolf would finally dwell with lamb. Jeremiah found the state of the nation so far gone into sin that it could only be saved by surrender to the Babylonians. It was not enough for the people to say, “The Temple of the Lord. The Temple of the Lord. The Temple of the Lord”. Ezekiel proclaimed a similar message of judgment on a sinful nation, whether they would hear or whether they would forbear.
Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfil them. As the prophets of old had spoken truth to power, so did he. As the prophets had faced opposition and persecution, so did he. It was therefore to be expected that his followers would also meet with suffering and death in this world. It has been said that truth purchetheth hatred. Whereas in the eyes of the world what matters is looking good, in the eyes of God what matters is doing good. We are all constantly tempted to water down the Christian faith to make it more palatable to our audience. People find it offensive if they are told that they are less than perfect and seem to prefer a religion that flatters their sense of pride and self worth, a religion which is about glorifying themselves and their particular party or faction, rather than glorifying God. But what we should learn from the message of the prophets and of Jesus himself is that the truth is more important than diplomacy. The spirit of the age is very different from the Holy Spirit. The prophets were unpopular in their age and Jesus said that the same would be true of his followers, beginning from St. Stephen up until the present day.
But there is one crucial difference between the message of the prophets of the old covenant and the message of Jesus. The Hebrew prophets offered harsh criticisms of their contemporaries, but could perhaps be said to be lacking in charity. Jeremiah, perhaps the greatest of the Hebrew prophets, himself confessed to feeling embittered against his persecutors and at times even despaired of life itself. This was an entirely understandable human reaction caused by an imperfect apprehension of the spirit of love. But Jesus went beyond this in exhorting his followers to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile, to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. Evil could not be overcome by evil, but could only be overcome by good. Jesus alone combined the severity of the Hebrew prophets with the tenderness of the divine charity in reaching out to the fallen and sinful. His followers are called to do likewise, though none of us can fully achieve this in this life. We struggle to find the right balance between the tenderness of divine charity and the severity of the prophets. The Church throughout history has tended to be too harsh in one age and too soft in another. In earlier ages it was often too quick to condemn, today it is often too willing to turn a blind eye to sin and fail to speak truth to power. We must pray for grace to speak the truth in love and that the divine charity that was incarnate in Jesus may be replicated in us, as it was in St. Stephen, who died praying for his persecutors.