Commentary on Acts 10:34-43
From early in life we are encouraged to make choices and develop preferences; we begin to identify our favorite toy, color, food, book, or movie.
In and of themselves, preferences are just that, preferences. Yet all too often these choices are recast as a hierarchy; that is, my favorite is also the best. When a value is assigned to our choices it becomes clear that choosing favorites can be problematic.
I have seen the devasting effects of favoritism — what it can do to one’s sense of belonging and sense of being. It often creates a competition for affection or attention (even if the struggle is an internal one). The struggle is seen in classrooms and within families, but it can also be witnessed in professional settings as a worker vying for the attention of their boss.
Parents are recipients of endless advice and one of the most memorable pieces of advice that I have received was from a woman who said that all of her children think that they are her favorite child. What an amazing feat! To make each child feel so individually special that they feel like the favorite is the ultimate parent accomplishment. Frankly, I have adopted it as a personal goal of mine with my own children and I think we find this exhibited in the scriptures. As a middle child who was/is overly concerned with parity, I must admit that I am comforted by the fact that God doesn’t have favorites.
The book of Acts is an epic tale of the evolution of a movement into an establishment. In this book we learn how a small group of Jesus followers develops into “the church.” In a book that describes miracle after miracle and takes its readers on adventure after adventure, it is in these few verses that Peter declares the complete gospel. Jesus of Nazareth was anointed and chosen by God. He received the Holy Spirit and with its power he goes around doing good and healing those who were oppressed. He was put to death, dying on a tree. God raised him on the third day and he appeared to a chosen few. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins.
This is the gospel! The good news of Jesus the Christ leads us into the presence of a loving and accepting God. The gospel is simple: it is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, the context of Peter’s message is more complex.
Peter begins his homily by saying: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God.” If we read this declaration within the context of Acts 10, it becomes evident that Peter needed to be reminded that God does not play favorites.
A man in Caesarea named Cornelius, an Italian centurion, is described as devout and God fearing (10:1-2). Based on a vision that he has received from the Lord, Cornelius summons Peter. Meanwhile Peter was receiving a vision of his own concerning what he could and could not lawfully eat (10:9-16). Peter arrives at Cornelius’ home and informs him: “You yourself know that it is unlawful for a Jewish man to associate with or to visit an allophylo (a foreigner) but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28). Although this is often translated as Gentile; the word is best understood as stranger or foreigner or someone from another race.1
Peter did not want to associate with the foreigner, with someone who was different. However, in front of Cornelius and the family and friends that he had gathered in his home, Peter declared God to be impartial. Although Peter may have had his prejudices, God did not.
Like Peter, it seems that we, too, can lose sight of this important attribute of God — God shows no partiality. All too often I have heard Christians declare things like: “favor ain’t fair.” Christians can too quickly deem ourselves “chosen by God” or “God’s anointed” while marginalizing others. On the surface these statements can be benign, simply descriptive yet when they are employed to distinguish our particular group as special to the exclusion of others, we, quite frankly, miss the mark. Likewise, when our actions reject the foreigner and the stranger, when we put our nation or our people over any other or when we support policies that do so, we are acting out of accordance with a God who accepts anyone who fears God and does what is right. God has no favorites.
Because God has no favorites, Peter is compelled to share the good news with Cornelius and his friends and family. Like prophets past, present, and future, Peter testifies about Jesus. It is through this testimony that those who come to believe will know that their sins are forgiven in his name. The gospel went ahead of Peter; it goes ahead of us, revealing a God who cares for us all. We join a cloud of witnesses who can declare the goodness of the Lord
As we celebrate the most holy of our religious observances, the Resurrection of our Lord, let us be reminded that his salvific act was for everyone. Let us remember that the path that Jesus created for us brings us to the presence of a loving God who accepts us all. Let us join with the prophets and testify about the one and emulate his life by living a life where we can be described by others as going about doing good and healing those around us because God is with us. He is not only our Lord; he is the Lord of all.
- ethnos is the Greek word that is more commonly translated as Gentiles, but can be rendered as the nations. That is not the word that we find here.