Wednesday of week 2 of Easter – First Reading


Commentary on Acts 5:17-26

In the passage immediately preceding today’s reading we are told that many signs and wonders were being performed by the apostles and more and more people joined their community.  Even Peter’s shadow falling on the sick was enough to heal them.  All this was causing great alarm among the religious leadership, who saw these men acting on the basis of a faith (a Saviour risen from the dead) which they regarded as heretical.

During the next three days (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday) we will be hearing a description of the leaders’ efforts to put a stop to the apostles’ work.

Specifically those upset were the high priest and the Sadducee party to which he belonged.  As we saw earlier, Caiaphas was the high priest recognised by Rome, but the Jews considered his father-in-law Annas still the high priest because it was an office held for life.  The Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) as inspired and rejected later teachings accepted by others.  Nor did they believe in a personal Messiah but only in a Messianic age. They also were seen to some extent as collaborators with the Romans and it was partly because they feared the reaction of the Romans that they wanted to get rid of this new ‘movement’ which could arouse the suspicions of the Roman authorities.  “It is better,” Caiaphas had said during Jesus’ trial, “that one man die for the people than that our whole nation be destroyed.”  Here was a similar situation.

We are told that the main motive for their displeasure was jealousy.  The apostles were attracting large crowds, apart from the fact that they were disseminating a doctrine which the Sadducees denounced.  So they had the apostles arrested and thrown into the public jail.

But during the night an “angel of the Lord” opened the gates for them and told them to go back and continue preaching in the Temple.  The phrase ‘angel of the Lord’ appears four times in Acts: Stephen, during his address to the Sanhedrin, speaks of an angel speaking to Moses near Mount Sinai (7:30-38); an angel guides the deacon Philip to seek out the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26); an angel frees Peter from prison (12:7-10); and it is an angel who strikes down Herod when he accepts being addressed as a god (12:23).

In today’s reading, was it really a divine intervention or was it the work of a secret but influential supporter?  It does not matter; it is clear that Jesus is with his apostles.  So the dawn finds them back in the Temple preaching about Jesus.

The same morning, the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of the Jews, was convoked and the prisoners summoned.  The Sanhedrin was the supreme Jewish court, consisting of 70 to 100 men (the proper number was 71).  They sat in a semi-circle, backed by three rows of disciples of the “learned men”, with the clerks of the court standing in front.

The temple guard found the jail locked, the guards at their posts but there was no sign of the apostles.  They were dumbfounded and could not explain the situation.  Then the council was amazed to hear that the apostles were back in the Temple teaching the people.  They were re-arrested but with no show of force because the leaders feared the opposition of the crowd.

We have here again a pattern that recurs right through the history of the Church and indeed among all those who fight in this world for truth and justice. Untold numbers of Christians in every part of the world have found themselves in jail for their faith.  There are Christians in detention and labour camps right now.  They have experienced the protection of God who gives them courage and peace and a sense of liberation (even if they are not always miraculously released).

As in today’s case, those in power are aware that they often do not have the people on their side.  Their only weapon is their power but not truth or justice.  To keep their power and all that goes with it, they will not hesitate to suppress truth and act unjustly and often violently.

As with the apostles, we cannot acquiesce in a situation where truth and justice are being attacked.  There must be dialogue and even resistance but never violence.  Our own dignity and that of our opponents must be deeply respected.  We oppose, not them, but their ideas and their actions.  Gandhi was a wonderful exemplar of this and he was the inspiration for Martin Luther King’s anti-segregation campaign in the US.  They both totally eschewed any form of violence but, not surprisingly, were themselves the victims of their opponents’ violence.  Among our fellow-Catholics we think of people like Maximilian Kolbe or Bishop Oscar Romero.  We might pray today to have even a modicum of their integrity and courage.

Tomorrow, we will continue with this story…

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