As the early Christian community was organizing itself, some were set apart to respond to the needs of the poor, especially widows. Stephen was one of those chosen for this ministry. Who could have imagined that he would end up being a spokesperson for the new movement arising from the synagogue?
I am guessing that working among the marginalized women thrust into poverty, he took on the role of truth-teller prophet to confront the closed-hearted attitudes which ignored them. He gave a history lesson to the religious authorities to remind them of the way in which such truth-tellers had been dismissed all throughout their history. It was not received well. Sometimes the truth is so threatening it cannot be heard.
As Stephen was being stoned to death he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). In these words we hear the echoes of Jesus’ words of forgiveness from the Cross. What is it in such people as Stephen who are able to set aside the hatred directed toward them and desire good for the perpetrators? Apparently he loved God more than life.
I recall the story of Ruby Bridges, the little six-year-old who broke the race barrier in 1960 at William Franz Elementary School. She displayed an amazing capacity to forgive in the face of horrible acts directed toward her. One day her teacher asked what she had said to the crowd outside the school who had been hurling insults and vitriol toward her. Her response was, “I was praying…I was praying for them.” A portion of the prayer she prayed, twice a day before and after school was: “Please God, try to forgive these people. Because even if they say those bad things, they don’t know what they’re doing...”
Little Ruby’s mother taught her to pray. The only thing I can figure is that out of that prayer, Ruby found a center where she was so confident of God’s love for her that she could extend that love beyond herself. Stephen was able to offer that same Christ-love to those who hated him for challenging a system that also had forgotten its central purpose to love God and one another. Both of them were instruments of God’s barrier-breaking word of love that transcends all human constructs.