It was Sir John Dalberg-Acton who uttered the famous phrase “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…” Which makes me think of today’s readings, the trial of Stephen and the extreme injustice he received at the hands of men in a position of power and authority. Think about what happened to this man of “good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). He was a man “full of grace” (v.8) and it was members of the “synagogue of the Freedmen” (v.9) who disputed with him but “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (v.10). But these so-called Freedmen were prisoners of their own sin. Look at the list of things they did – “secretly instigated men” (v.11) who lied about him and stirred up others to bring him before the council (v.12) who also brought in false witnesses against him. Then, after his defense recorded in our reading from today in Acts 7, they were “enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (v.54) before stoning him to death.
When you read a passage of Scripture like that it is difficult to believe that these were religious men. What enters the minds of people to secretly instigate others to bring false accusations against someone, and then stone that person to death? Stephen deserved none of that treatment and was the victim of the worst kind of injustice.
The way human beings can treat one another unfairly is something which goes back to the dawn of human civilization. And that’s one of the reasons why God made the law written in our Old Testament reading for today: “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” (Deut. 16:18-20).
Why should the people of God need a law like that? It should be self-evident that perverting judgment, showing partiality, accepting bribes and subverting the cause of the righteous are all wrong. But what the Jews did to Stephen, and what they did earlier to put the Son of God to death, should have been self-evidently wrong too.
The word translated “towns” in verse 18 is the Hebrew word for gates. The gate of the city was the ceremonial landmark for where justice was executed in a town. Historically that came about because the gatekeeper was the one who had the power to open and close the entrance to the city, to let people in or out. Those in positions of authority have the same power on a symbolic level, to decide whether to let people in or out of prison or even death. And maybe therein lies the problem: power. It’s something which men in particular have a really hard time keeping in check. When placed in positions of power we tend to abuse it. Those who have been given positions of responsibility, whether they’re Jewish religious leaders of the first century, parents or whoever else, are meant to be arbiters of justice. But when that authority is challenged, as it was by Stephen, things like pride and rage rise inside us and because we’re in that position of power and control we take it out on the challenger and injustice reigns. That’s what happened to Stephen, that’s what happened to Christ, and that’s what happened to everyone who has been the victim of some form of abuse.
The Preacher in our reading from Ecclesiastes 8:3-4, reminds us that a man in authority “does whatever he pleases. For the word of the king is supreme”. That’s a dangerous thing. When we find that we’re the king of our domain and can do whatever we please, judging people with righteous judgment is of paramount importance. We need to let go of our feelings of entitlement and think instead of the greatest arbiter of justice of all, the Lord God of Heaven. He is in the ultimate position of power and authority. And he shows justice through being compassionate, generous, slow to anger, abundant in steadfast love, faithful and forgiving.
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