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Judas and Matthias:
Human Decisions and Divine Destiny

For Sunday May 20, 2012

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)

Acts 1:15–17, 21–26

Psalm 1

1 John 5:9–13

John 17:6–19

           In his "rockumentary" movie It Might Get Loud, director David Guggenheim tells the stories of three famous rock guitarists whose professional lives span fifty years — Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, The Edge from U2, and Jack White of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. In an interview Guggenheim notes how even if you're not a fan of rock music, "you'll love the movie because many of the things said in the movie are universal."

Maestro del Crocefisso di Trevi (14th century), tempera on wood.
Maestro del Crocefisso di Trevi (14th century), tempera on wood.

           My favorite scene occurs in Mount Temple Comprehensive high school in Dublin, where Edge was a student. The school is closed and empty, so Edge's voice echoes in the hallways. He walks up to a bulletin board and recalls how in 1976 a fourteen-year-old Larry Mullen posted a sign asking if anyone wanted to start a band. Six people responded. One quit after the first practice, a second left in a few weeks, and a third was edged out after a year. That left Mullen on drums, Adam Clayton on bass, David Evans (Edge) on guitar, and Paul Hewson (Bono) on vocals. At first the group was called Feedback, then The Hype, and finally U2.

            "We were really, really bad," said Edge. That was 150 million records ago.

           As Edge looked at the bulletin board, he paused, pondered, and then said: "I could have been a banker."

           Such was the mystery of his personal destiny, which mystery is, as Guggenheim noted, a universal experience for all of us. How can anyone fully explain how they arrived at where they are today?

           The reading from Acts this week introduces two men, both of whom were part of the inner circle of Jesus's twelve apostles. For two thousand years the name Judas Iscariot has epitomized infamy, treachery, and tragedy. As for Matthias, despite his importance as the "thirteenth apostle" who replaced Judas, history consigned him to anonymity and obscurity. Since Acts 1:12–26 is the only passage about Matthias in Scripture, we know nothing else about him except for some disparate traditions in early Christian literature. As I meditate on the lives of these two followers of Jesus, I find it difficult to understand how or why each one ended up where he did. Such is the mystery of human decisions and divine destiny, both theirs and ours.

           With his infamous kiss of betrayal, Judas "served as a guide for those who arrested Jesus" (Acts 1:16). But why? How could he have committed such a deplorable act? Three Scriptures locate the explanation outside of and beyond Judas's own choices.

14th century illuminated mss. of Judas.
14th century illuminated
mss. of Judas.

           John's gospel this week says that Judas was "doomed to destruction" (John 17:12), as if some ominous fate overtook him. John and Luke also say that Judas's betrayal "fulfilled Scripture" (John 17:12, Acts 1:16); but their interpretation of the Old Testament to reach this New Testament conclusion would make most Bible readers scratch their heads. Luke also writes that “satan entered Judas” to betray Jesus (Luke 22:3). I don't find any of these explanations satisfying or illuminating. By the way, if you read the Exodus narrative carefully, you'll find a similar explanation for Pharaoh's "hard heart" — it's described as both an act of God and a consequence of his own choices.

           At a fourth level, we should not patronize Judas as a mere pawn. He did what he did for his own complex motives, most of which are lost to us today. He received his infamous "thirty pieces of silver," but I suspect that other factors came into play, including some that he himself could not fathom.

           Perhaps it was natural that 150 years later some gnostics gave Judas's reputation a makeover. The "Gospel of Judas" that was (re)discovered not long ago — a third or fourth century Coptic translation from the original Greek that contains very little that is specifically Christian — portrays Judas as a hero who betrays Jesus at his own request, and not as the quintessential villain.

            As for his own convoluted motives and their tragic outcome, we can make three observations. First, Judas's betrayal of Jesus is unremarkable. Peter denied that he would ever deny the Lord, but did so three times. The other eleven all made the same promise, but when Jesus was arrested all the disciples deserted him and fled (Matthew 26:56). We should never deny our capacity for denial. Second, after betrayal and denial, Judas and Peter responded in similar ways. After aiding and abetting in the condemnation of Jesus, Judas was “filled with remorse” and returned the blood money. Peter broke down and wept.

           Finally, in playing the most undesirable role in all of human history, in some sense Judas took our place and triggered the events that lead to the greatest good for all humanity, the death and resurrection of Jesus. Judas's betrayal might be construed like Aquinas interpreted Adam's "fortunate crime" ("o felix culpa"). At any rate, Augustine is hardly the only believer to hope that "even from my sins God has drawn good."

           The selection of Matthias to replace Judas is likewise murky. Peter invokes Psalm 109:8 to validate the roll of the dice with the imprimatur of prophetic fulfillment: "May another take his place of leadership." At a more mundane level, the eleven remaining apostles simply nominated two candidates: "they proposed two men" (Acts 1:23). When they prayed, they confessed that God himself had already chosen the right person, and that their task was to decipher the divine predetermination. Finally, the apostles resorted to "dumb luck" to ascertain the divine intent — (Beardslee in Pelikan, Acts) — a roll of the dice identified Matthias instead of the alternate "Joseph called Barsabbas."


           Then what happened? We don't know, because this is the only Biblical reference to Matthias. There are even later conjectures about Matthias's exact identity, that he was Zacchaeus, Barnabas or Nathaniel. In the 14th century Nicephorus said that Matthias preached and then died in the Caucus region of Georgia. The fifth-century "Synopsis of Dorotheus" says that Matthias proclaimed the gospel to the "barbarians and meat eaters in the interior of Ethiopia." A third legend says that Matthias was stoned and beheaded in Jerusalem. A fourth tradition says his bones are buried in Trier, Germany. The mystery of Matthias's personal destiny thus includes great historical obscurity.

           Contemplating this dance of human decision and divine destiny, I thought of John Milton (1608–1674), perhaps the greatest poet of the English language. Struck blind at the age forty-four, in his sonnet When I Consider How My Light Is Spent, Milton ponders why God would gift him with remarkable talents, only to take them back. The ways of God felt harsh and arbitrary: "Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?" Plunged into a world of darkness, he wondered:

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest He returning chide;
"Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, "God doth not need
Either man's work or His own gifts. Who best
Bear His mild yoke, they serve Him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at His bidding speed,
And post o'er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Patience, humility, availability, and even resignation to the inscrutabilities of divine designs all serve us well. In the words of Milton's near contemporary George Herbert (1593–1633), it's best to "leave thy cold dispute/about what is fit or not" (The Collar). Whoever we are and wherever we are — a rock star like Edge, an infamous scapegoat like Judas, an obscure apostle like Matthias, or a struggling poet like Milton — we all can "serve him best" right where we are, even when we "only stand and wait."

For further reflection:

* What do you think of when you consider Judas?
* What do you take from Milton's poem?
* Have you ever had to "only stand and wait" when you wanted to "speed and post o'er land and ocean without rest?"
* See The Gospel According to Judas: Is There a Limit to God's Forgiveness? by Ray S. Anderson.

Image credits: (1) Vatican Museum Picture Gallery; (2) Digital Scriptorium; and (3) Rotten Library.

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