Today we celebrate the life of Saint Stephen, whose dramatic story unfolds in the book of Acts. If you aren’t familiar with Stephen’s life, let me set the stage for you.
Stephen has been chosen as one of seven men to lead the early Christians living in Jerusalem. We learn in the 6th and 7th chapters of Acts that Stephen is a good man and full of faith, love and the Holy Spirit. He oversees the money used to care for widows, orphans and other people living on the fringes of society.
All was well until he challenged a group Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia gathered at the synagogue. They engage in a theological debate and Stephen wins. Acts 6:10 says these Jewish leaders “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.” Humiliated and angry, they decide to defame Stephen’s character by hiring false witnesses to say that they had heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. This stirs up the people, the elders and the scribes who capture Stephen and bring him to a trial in a Jewish court.
During the trial Stephen delivers a long speech in his own defense. He recites a history of Jewish people being disobedient to God including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph, Moses, David… it goes on and on and on and until suddenly, in verse fifty-one of chapter seven, there’s a change. The historical reflections on Hebrew heroes are abruptly replaced with this personal attack:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are for ever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)
Stephen speaks harshly to those gathered at his trial; it does not go over well. They drag Stephen outside of the city and mercilessly start stoning him. While dying Stephen prays for his killers: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Soon Stephen’s body is silent and lifeless. He becomes the first martyr of our Church.
Stephen’s honesty leaves me stunned. I learned early in my Alabama childhood to sugarcoat the truth to get what I wanted from others – almost manipulating my intended target. The phrase, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar” was a refrain repeated frequently in my household. This thought never even occurs to Stephen. He doesn’t hide behind manipulation nor does he choose to tiptoe around the issues bothering him. Stephen instead chooses to speak the unmasked truth despite the obvious threat of consequences.
Young children’s interpersonal skills are often as brazenly honest as Stephen’s. As a three-year-old my daughter Pailet ensured my humility with her outspoken opinions about my hair, my renditions of Taylor Swift songs, my choice of clothes and the dark circles under my eyes that magically appeared some mornings.
Then a year ago, she stopped. Somewhere around four, five and six years old we begin teaching our children that they should not say every single thought that pops into their heads. We teach them to think of other people’s feelings and what it means to be empathetic.
As we celebrate Stephen’s life today I wonder about the disservice we are doing our children with these life lessons. I cannot say that I miss my daughter’s running commentary on my looks and parenting skills, but I do miss hearing what’s on her mind. I want my children to be kind and considerate, but I also want them to courageously speak the truth.
There is a lot of middle ground between manipulating people to get what you want and being so direct that you end up a martyr. We are living in that middle ground right now, but every day nudging our children back towards their bold, toddler-truth-telling.
And, thanks for your reading persistence, Pope Benedict has some thoughts on Stephen, as well;
St Stephen’s witness gives us several instructions for our prayers and for our lives. Let us ask ourselves: where did this first Christian martyr find the strength to face his persecutors and to go so far as to give himself? The answer is simple: from his relationship with God, from his communion with Christ, from meditation on the history of salvation, from perceiving God’s action which reached its crowning point in Jesus Christ. Our prayers, too, must be
nourished by listening to the word of God, in communion with Jesus and his Church.