The passage from the Acts of the Apostles for this Thursday introduces a new character from whom we have not heard before this point; namely, the Apostle James. We know that there were two apostles that went by the name James. One was the son of Zebedee; the other is identified as the son of Alphaeus. Another way to distinguish between the two of them is to call James the son of Zebedee, James the Great, and James the son of Alphaeus, James the Less. In all probability, the title refers to the physical description of the men rather than some sort of distinction in their roles. In fact, James the Less was probably the Bishop of Jerusalem and, therefore, the character we hear in the Acts of the Apostles today.
The Jerusalem community or church was comprised of Jews who had placed their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. In the early years of the Church’s history, this community would have been the preeminent Church. Not until Peter went to Rome did the principal community move to that site.
Because of the Jewish character of this community, St. Luke probably uses the voice of James in the conversation about the Gentile converts as a way to emphasize the importance of this decision and the discernment process that went on before the decision was made.
We should also note that the assembly listened to Paul and Barnabas as they recounted the signs and wonders that “God had worked among the Gentiles through them.” (Acts 15:12c) Once again, St. Luke is careful to note that the apostles took no credit for what had happened in their midst. They saw all of the various signs and wonders as acts of God. It was God who was effecting the growth of the community, not them.
When James rises to speak, St. Luke again makes sure that the decision to admit the Gentiles without their first converting to Judaism is rooted in the Hebrew Scriptures. He quotes the ninth chapter of the Prophet Amos to justify the notion that Gentiles are considered part of God’s people. There are many passages that he could have used because the prophets are filled with oracles that point to the universality of God’s reign and the inclusive nature of God’s holy people. Unfortunately, these oracles were not all that well heeded until this point in time.
We cannot stress enough that this discernment process as well as its results are a part of God’s plan of salvation. Jesus came first to the Jewish people, but his actions demonstrate over and over again that his mission was for all men and women. Ours can be no less inclusive.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator