A Father's Grief
As Stephen lay lifeless in the dust, the murderous mob began to dissipate. But they were stopped in their tracks as an elderly well-dressed and obviously wealthy man stepped through the crowd. They parted as he walked, looking neither right nor left, his eyes fixed on the body on the ground.
"It's Stephen's father," someone whispered.
The man approached the body. Turning his eyes heavenward he said something that sounded like "Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba."
"What's he doing?" the Roman guard asked me.
"He's saying Kaddish over his son," I explained. "It's the Jewish prayer of mourning,"
Finally, he took three steps back, bowed left and right and center, and then stepped forward again, saying "…Shalom alienu v'al kol-yisrael, v'imru amen."
After a pause he turned and looked at the murderers. His eyes overflowed as he said: "This was my son! My only son!" He covered his face with his hands and sobbed uncontrollably, his whole body quivering.
No one could look him in the face. All eyes were fixed on the ground. Composing himself, he faced the assailants.
"Look at what you have done!" he cried, pointing at his dead son. "Are you proud of this? Is this what the law tells you to do? Is there no compassion in the law? No understanding? No concern for your fellow man? He was a good man, a dutiful son, but in your eyes he was a sinner, a blasphemer; he was worthy of death! Why?"
No one said a word.
"How many of you have sons? How many of you would like to see what I see? How you would feel! Innocent blood spilled because of cruelty and hate. You are misguided stupid stubborn fools! You defile the very law you hope to uphold!"
Then he turned to Saul. "And you! You call yourself a man of God! Does God smile on this? Does God will this? You, Saul of Tarsus, in the bitterness of your heart have sown the wind and you will reap the whirlwind!"
Those words from the prophet Hosea rang in our ears. Everyone looked at Saul, who remained silent.
"You smug Pharisee! You never knew a father's love! You don't know love at all, only hate. You don’t understand my loss. There is a hole in my heart where Stephen used to be, full of life and energy, a young man with his whole life ahead of him, and now… just look at what you have done!" He paused to wipe his eyes.
"He believed Jesus was the Messiah. That's why you killed him. He was guilty of blasphemy, according to you. You are guilty of something much worse! You have destroyed a father's soul. His mother has lost her voice and cannot speak out of sorrow. His friends are torn with grief; their lives are shattered. They are in mourning over the loss of a good, loving, giving and wholesome young man."
He shook his head feebly and again covered his tear-filled eyes with his hands. "And every morning I will awake and think of my son. My lost son."
Unmoved, Saul turned and walked away.
The entire Christian community was in tears. They honored Stephen as a martyr, a Greek word that means witness, as he died a witness for Christ. He was the first, but I feared there would be many more. Saul would see to that.
There was an aching fear that this might be the beginning of the persecution Jesus had warned us of. If a gifted and charismatic young man like Stephen could be publicly harassed and killed, despite his good works and miracles, couldn't any or, in fact, all of them be subject to the same fate? It was a horrid, but real possibility.
The gruesome incident also made me rethink my desire to be a deacon. I stood by, helpless, as the stones pulverized Stephen's body. Was I prepared for that? I felt guilty that I failed to do anything to help. But what could I do? The mob was ruthless, driven with cruelty, unfeeling even of a father's love. Yes, I could have stepped up and demanded they stop stoning him, and would become a second target for the mob, joining Stephen as a witness for Jesus.
I looked at myself. I was not proud of what I saw. I felt Jesus and his apostles needed me to be more than a record-keeper, but I didn't have it in me. I was too old, too timid, too scared. Stephen's father, an old man, showed more bravery than I had.
Shoulders hunched, head down, I took a last look at Stephen, and slouched my way home.
(Note: Unexpectedly, the Kaddish prayer is not grief-filled. Instead it is a hymn of praise to God. One translation reads: "Glorified and sanctified be God's Great Name throughout the world He has created according to His will. May God establish His kingdom in your lifetime and within the life of the entire House of Israel speedily and soon, Amen. May God's Great Name be blessed forever and for all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, elevated and lauded be the Name of the Holy One. Blessed be God beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in all the world, Amen. May there be abundant peace from heaven and life upon us and all Israel, Amen. May God who creates peace in celestial heights create peace upon us and all Israel, Amen.")
(This story is adapted from The Big Tent, by Dave Mishur, which will be published next month.)