Remember Barsabbas?

two choices one path

7th Sunday of Easter (B)

No, I don’t mean Barabbas, the violent criminal who Pontius Pilate released from prison in exchange for Jesus. I mean Justus, a.k.a. Joseph, Barsabbas. He’s the guy who didn’t get chosen to fill the spot left open by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. The other unknown disciple, Matthias, got the job, according to the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles [Acts 1:15-26]. For many readers, this account simply represents the early church getting its house in order before embarking on its evangelical mission. And it does seem to be the entire story; not only is this the first we hear of Matthias and Barsabbas, it is the last. Never again are either of them mentioned in the New Testament.

The girl detective in me has a few questions.

I am the kind of person who searches the background of snapshots for details that have nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with the experience of those who just happened to be standing nearby. Imagining the secret life of bystanders may be the stuff of fiction writers, but in the context of reading scripture, visualizing what the secondary characters in the story might be experiencing helps to further humanize the situation.

Many years ago as part of my theological studies I explored the various forms of prayer attributed to particular religious orders, Franciscan, Augustinian, Ignatian, for example. As a lifelong fan of the Jesuits, I was delighted to discover my preferred method followed the Ignatian way. This contemplative method invites the reader to insert him or herself into the story and attend to the feelings and images that arise. For example, I might imagine the colors and scents of goods being sold on the street, feelings of claustrophobia brought on by narrow and crowded alleyways, the sounds of mothers calling to their children, and the dust working its way between the soles of my feet and my sandals. The method also encourages the reader to dialog with the characters, not as a spectator, but as a participant who is known by the others.

Reading scripture this way is deeply personal and subjective. It is rich, I tell you, rich. Having said this, I am now obliged to make this public service announcement: context is everything. O Lord let not our imagination lead us away from what the text says. Readers must never “proof text,” manipulate, or misuse scripture in order to bolster a personal position.

The writers of sacred Scripture did not include superfluous details. Every chapter, verse, and detail is intentional and complete. That is not to say openings for deeper reflection do not exist. Nor does it suggest scripture is meant to be read literally. Exploring the layers beneath what has been written is fascinating work. Ascertaining the historical context, the literary form, the writer’s intended audience, and the situation being addressed helps readers relate to the text in a way that bridges it to contemporary life. In other words, what does this teaching mean for us today?

And now, back to Barsabbas and Matthias.

The purpose of the election was to restore the number of apostles to twelve by filling the space vacated by Judas. The explanation from Peter, the scriptural citation from the Psalms, and the detailed method are included by the writer (Luke) to show how the early church appointed leaders. The process of selection began with two nominees chosen from a pool of potential candidates. In order to qualify for the role, both Barsabbas and Matthias had to have been followers of Jesus from his baptism by John, through his ministry and then, to his death and resurrection. Following this nomination, the group engaged in communal prayer for Spiritual guidance and later, cast their votes to determine which of the two would share in the ministry of the twelve apostles.

“…and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.” [Acts 1:26b]

Barsabbas was not chosen. The reason has no bearing on the storyline so it was not given. But I have to wonder, could his name have played a part? A bit too close to Barabbas, perhaps? So, I began researching Barsabbas. But the typically fruitful biblical commentaries, concordances, and dictionaries revealed little to nothing. So, I did what all modern day people do. I Googled his name. Google asked me, “Do you mean Barabbas?” Hmmm. This naming problem can’t be just a modern-day obstacle. I imagined the conversation between Peter, the others, and Barsabbas. It might have sounded something like this. “Say, look here Barsabbas, old chap, you really are a great guy but, we have to go with Matthias. It’s, well, it’s your name. Too close to Barabbas, too confusing. We just can’t do it.” Doubtful, but, possible. Still, if we are to accept that the appointment of Matthias was Spirit led, and that is what the text is telling us, we have to consider another option.

As one who accompanied Jesus and the other disciples, Barsabbas was almost certainly considered a good candidate because he exhibited certain leadership skills and possessed a solid understanding of Jesus’ teaching. While the text is silent on what came next for him, we can presume Barsabbas continued to live the life of a good disciple and worked to spread the gospel message in word and action. He did so as a member of the Christian community, just as we do. And, what about Matthias? Well, as mentioned above, he never reappears in the Scriptures either. This reveals yet another ecclesial reality: the majority of the work of pastoral leaders takes place in the background, quietly, and, for the most part, anonymously. Few disciples, ordained or lay, are recognized, named, or immortalized.

So, in addition to its original intent, this passage is a good reminder for each of us today to carry on, serve others and live out the Gospel in word and action with the utmost humility, just like the many other unknown Barsabbas’s and Matthias’s before us.

Who has a problem with inclusiveness? (Hint: It’s not God)

6th Sunday of Easter (B)

Religious institutions and people of faith often have trouble accepting that God’s lavish expression of love is for everyone. Some believe it is their solemn duty to enforce standards on those they consider, say, not yet ready for full and active participation.

Is it helpful, or even our right, to remind those we deem to be sinners of Jesus’ command to “sin no more” while we half-heartedly obey his command to love one another? What? We are good people! We love our neighbors! All are welcome in our faith communities! It’s just that some are more welcome than others.

We see in the Acts of the Apostles how the early church grew in great numbers despite established religious boundaries and parameters. It became apparent to Peter and the others that the Holy Spirit moved where it willed and that human constructs of cleanliness, worth, nationality, gender or rank were meaningless to God. Consequentially, the young Christian movement reinterpreted itself as universal, or catholic (small c). Peter observed, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” [Acts 10:34b-35]

In the late 1960s, a book entitled “Tough Love” suggested a method of discipline that gave permission to treat others harshly as a means of helping them to conform. The theory goes something like this: If we deprive a person of affection, cease material support, and shun them they will soon realize they have been wrong and return to the fold as a conforming citizen. Although the method has been effective in some cases, it has also been known to be harmful. Many faith communities practice a form of tough love on those standing on the outside who wish to come in. This is not the way Jesus loves us, and it’s not the way the Father loves him. Furthermore, this is not what it means to remain—to be included—in his love. And that’s the point.

Jesus said: “As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” [John 15:9]

And, “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you.” [John 15:12]

And, “This I command you: love one another.” [John 15:17]

Jesus doesn’t add any exemptions to his instruction. He doesn’t say, “This I command you: love one another, except when they are A, B, or C, in which case you may withhold your love until they comply.” Radical and inclusive love is difficult for a lot of people. Our world is troubled because many of us don’t know how to love others outside of our immediate circle. More fundamentally, we are unwilling to expose ourselves first to the radical love that God showers upon us.

My dear friend, Fr. Joel Fortier, exemplifies what it means to love one another and remain in Jesus’ love. His whole life and ministry are all about facilitating loving human relationships, and I and countless others have experienced God’s love through him. He once told me, “Early in my priesthood, a friend asked me what my priesthood meant to me, and out of my mouth came without any hesitation or forethought, “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”” This statement has become the core of his pastoral plan. It is being love, encountering love and knowing his own belovedness that leads Fr. Joel to act. “It happens with sharing my time and presence in Word, Eucharist, thought, and action. In works of compassion, listening, and material physical help.” It is in the mutual indwelling of God that Fr. Joel finds and shares God’s initiative and grace with others. Being able to do so, he says, “is the joy and the ecstasy of life!”

When we become aware of our “being first loved” by God, just as Jesus was, we can take the first step to loving one another with a radical and inclusive love. Peter gradually came to understood this through his experience of knowing Jesus and was able to recognize it in the emerging Christian community.

A funny thing happens when someone experiences the expression of God’s lavish initiative through radical and inclusive love. He or she then becomes more capable than ever before to share that love with others. It increases, and it flows into every crevice of human interaction. It’s unstoppable.

With this understanding, who could be left out?

Today’s readings can be found here.