Then the Chief Priest said, “What do you have to say for yourself?”
Stephen replied, “Friends, fathers, and brothers, the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was still in Mesopotamia, before the move to Haran, and told him, ‘Leave your country and family and go to the land I’ll show you.’
“So he left the country of the Chaldees and moved to Haran. After the death of his father, he immigrated to this country where you now live, but God gave him nothing, not so much as a foothold. He did promise to give the country to him and his son later on, even though Abraham had no son at the time. God let him know that his offspring would move to an alien country where they would be enslaved and brutalized for four hundred years. ‘But,’ God said, ‘I will step in and take care of those slaveholders and bring my people out so they can worship me in this place.’
“Then he made a covenant with him and signed it in Abraham’s flesh by circumcision. When Abraham had his son Isaac, within eight days he reproduced the sign of circumcision in him. Isaac became father of Jacob, and Jacob father of twelve ‘fathers,’ each faithfully passing on the covenant sign.
“But then those ‘fathers,’ burning up with jealousy, sent Joseph off to Egypt as a slave. God was right there with him, though—he not only rescued him from all his troubles but brought him to the attention of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. He was so impressed with Joseph that he put him in charge of the whole country, including his own personal affairs.
“Later a famine descended on that entire region, stretching from Egypt to Canaan, bringing terrific hardship. Our hungry fathers looked high and low for food, but the cupboard was bare. Jacob heard there was food in Egypt and sent our fathers to scout it out. Having confirmed the report, they went back to Egypt a second time to get food. On that visit, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and introduced the Jacob family to Pharaoh. Then Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and everyone else in the family, seventy-five in all. That’s how the Jacob family got to Egypt.
“Jacob died, and our fathers after him. They were taken to Shechem and buried in the tomb for which Abraham paid a good price to the sons of Hamor. (The Message)
“What do you have to say for yourself?” conjures up for me women in a church basement with hands on hips, fingers pointing, staring at my 4-year-old self, after I ran through a bunch of old clothes at their annual rummage sale. And it wouldn’t be the last time I’d be asked that question throughout my life.
It’s a question that wants an accounting of something we’ve said or done. It’s not a polite question – more rhetorical than anything else.
Stephen was asked the question – and displayed a non-plussed presence that used the opportunity to turn it around back on his accusers and, indeed, of all humanity and human history.
Throughout Jewish history (and everyone else’s history, too!) there are human movements of good, inspired by divine initiatives; and alongside the good, there also are streams of resistant humanity who seek to thwart the good.
St. Stephen delivered a speech to the religious leaders, highlighting these two developments of human activity in the lives of two major figures in Jewish history.
The patriarch of the Jewish people, Abraham, demonstrated faith by listening to the call of God to go to a country he knew nothing about. The Lord’s promises included both blessing and hardship. Although Abraham would be faithful to God’s covenant, his descendants would still find themselves as slaves in Egypt for four-hundred years.
Opposition to faith is always hanging in the shadows, ready to spring when there is an opportunity. Even though Abraham was a devoted follower of God, there were faithless people around him who had a different agenda than the Lord’s. His name continued into the New Testament with the faithless using it.
But invoking the ancient name of Abraham isn’t a protective amulet that makes everything okay. Doing the will of God is what really matters; and exhibiting faith like Abraham is the real issue.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” (John the Baptist, Luke 3:8-9, NIV)
A good and right life comes through faith, and not by willpower nor in lifting up oneself by the bootstraps.
If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:2-3, NIV)
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the original pillars of Judaism. Jacob had twelve sons, known as the twelve patriarchs, from whom all Jews come from. The history of the brothers, like many families, is complicated. Joseph, next to the youngest of the brothers, was intensely disliked by several of the others.
Joseph found himself in Egypt because his brothers sold him into slavery. Like Abraham, Joseph had a robust faith, yet this did not inoculate him from trouble. Eventually, however, through a round-about turn of events, Joseph became in charge of the very empirical power that originally received him as a slave.
Through the eyes of faith, Joseph was not bitter, but understood why he needed to go through such terrible adversity. As administrator over all of Egypt, Joseph was able to handle severe years of drought with wisdom and confidence, thus saving many lives from hunger and starvation. And so, he was able to say to his brothers, many years later:
So, what do you have to say for yourself? Let you and I have the ability to say that we have been people of faith and patience. Let us be those who tenaciously hold to God, and steadfastly do good, speaking up in faith, no matter the situation, and regardless of faithless people who oppose us.
Because, in the end, the words of Jesus are true:
“So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs. Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:26-31, NIV)
Just and right God, when we are faithless, you are faithful, because your very character is faithfulness. Help us to be faithful – not fearful – to the end, exhibiting the same commitment as your martyr Stephen, who fully entrusted himself to the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we are bold to pray. Amen.