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Maurice Timothy ReidyApril 12, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

Find today’s readings here.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears,
you always oppose the Holy Spirit;
you are just like your ancestors.
Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” (Acts 7:51)

Today’s first reading is a riveting account of a critical moment in the early church. In the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen issues a scathing indictment of the elders and scribes, using language that enrages his audience. By using the term “stiff-necked people,” he makes a direct reference to God’s frustration with Israel (Ex 32:9). You can imagine why this got people mad. Who does this guy think he is? And now he claims to see God himself?

And so, the crowd rushes upon him, stones in hand. Then another character is introduced: “The witnesses laid down their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Ah, that guy. Talk about stiff-necked.

Saul was, of course, among the most zealous persecutors of the early Christians. But why is he in this story? No doubt because of the role he would come to play in Christian history.

But here is another possibility: He is here to remind us that the most stiff-necked among us can become the greatest servants of God.

When God calls Israel “stiff-necked” in Exodus, Moses does not disagree. But then a little later, when Moses pleads for mercy for his people, he offers an interesting argument (Ex 34:9). According to some translations, Moses invokes Israel’s stubbornness as the reason for God to stay with them. In short, God should be loyal to Israel because of their stubbornness—not despite it.

Why? Rabbi Yitzchak Nissenbaum, a 20th-century Polish rabbi, offers this reading:

“Almighty God, look upon this people with favor, because what is now their greatest vice will one day be their most heroic virtue. They are indeed an obstinate people … But just as now they are stiff-necked in their disobedience, so one day they will be equally stiff-necked in their loyalty.”

A “stiff-necked people” can become God’s most loyal servants.

A “stiff-necked” soldier can become an apostle on fire with faith.

Perhaps there is hope for the rest of us stiff-necked souls.

More: Scripture

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