Thursday, October 6, 2011

Acts, Jealousy & Honor (part 2 of 3)

With considerations of power come considerations of the all-important issue of honor in the ancient world---a world in which one’s status was delineated by conceptions of honor and shame.  Though honor would not necessarily have power as a compatriot (as the honorable would not necessarily be the powerful), power practically demanded honor.  Power, be it religious or political (remembering that the world of the disciples’ era did not neatly divide into the religious and the political, but operated in a holistic fashion in which all areas of life overlapped and intertwined), was nothing without honor.  Power was not power without honor.  Without public honor to accompany it, power would be empty and pointless. 

With that in mind, our rehearsal of the Acts narrative to this point brings us to the fifth chapter, which begins with the story of Ananias and Sapphira.  That story (which is probably less about their lies and more about their actions that diminished the church and Jesus’ public honor, and the potential shame that could have been brought upon the community by supposed followers not living out its principles) is immediately followed by “Now many miraculous signs and wonders came about among the people through the hands of the apostles” (5:12a).  From there, we go on to hear an echo of an earlier statement, when we read “By common consent they were all meeting together in Solomon’s Portico” (5:12b).  The echo is from chapter two, where we previously found “Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the Temple courts” (2:46a).  As we saw, this was appended by “the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved” (2:47b), which is mirrored in the fifth chapter by “More and more believers in the Lord were adding to their number, crowds of both men and women” (5:14).  Quite obviously, the repetition is important, and we must be cognizant of the fact that Luke’s story consistently builds, moving the reader or hearer along with a climax in mind.

Between the reports about the miraculous signs, of meeting with common consent, and of believers being added to the ever-growing group of Christians in Jerusalem, we read that “None of the rest dared to join then, but the people held them in high honor” (5:13).  This, as we well know, is more than simple respect or admiration.  Honor was a functional component of society.  Honor was important.  Honor was everything.  Luke makes the point that the disciples were being held in “high honor.”  This must not be overlooked.  This high honor put the disciples in the position of becoming potential patrons to a sizable number of people, able to provide benefits to a large client base.  Now, bear in mind that the disciples and the church did not seek to become patrons, as this was not the motivation behind the signs and wonders.  The signs and wonders were designed to point beyond the disciples to the King and kingdom they proclaimed, as they sought to raise the public honor of Jesus, touting His Resurrection in the face of His shameful crucifixion. 

We see evidence of the movement by the people to elevate the disciples as patrons when we read “Thus they even carried the sick out into the streets, and put them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow would fall on some of them” (5:15).  This is classic client behavior, as they sought to honor a patron or potential patron, so as to gain benefaction.  Furthermore, “A crowd of people from the towns around Jerusalem also came together, bringing the sick and those troubled by unclean spirits.  They were all being healed” (5:16).  With this record, we see a replay of the stories about Jesus as recorded in the Gospels---the church carrying on the work of its Lord.  Public honor was coming the way of the church.    

This leads into the report that “Now the high priest rose up, and all those with him (that is, the religious party of the Sadducees), and they were filled with jealousy” (5:17).  Why were they filled with jealousy?  Was it the performance of miraculous signs and wonders?  No.  Was it the growing crowds and the people gathering from all over?  Not directly.  So what was it?  It was the “high honor” being accorded to the disciples, which was evidenced by the behavior of the people.  Public honor was a limited good.  The growth of the honor of one necessarily led to the diminishing of the honor of another.  Yes, they still had their power, but they were losing their honor.  If enough honor slipped from their hands, their power would ultimately go with it.  Though it comes from John’s Gospel (composed after Acts), the eleventh chapter contains a story that sheds light on this way of thinking: “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called the council together and said, ‘What are we doing?  For this man is performing many miraculous signs.  If we allow Him to go on this way, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away our sanctuary and our nation.’” (11:47-48)  As we see in Acts, these are concerns about honor and power, and they are prefaced with mention of miraculous signs and a growing number of followers.

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