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.

Ruined for life.

5th Sunday of Lent (B)

If you want to see Jesus, look for people who commit themselves to serving the poor.

You can see Jesus in the young adults who commit to one or more years with faith-based organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. You will see Jesus in the many men and women who discern a vocation as lay missioners—a choice which leads them far from home and family—in order to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and to create a more peaceful and just world. Maryknoll Lay Missioners is one such organization through which lay persons can live out this calling. You will recognize Jesus in those who even after their time of service has passed make career and life choices that continue to reflect those Gospel values of service, justice, and living in right relationship not only with other humans, but with all of God’s creation.

From the time we are children the world tells us we own our lives, and we go to great lengths to save them. As adults we toil away, lining our nests and filling our storehouses. And when someone from our own family or neighborhood chooses a life of service and simplicity, we find it odd, incomprehensible, even. Our admiration of their “goodness” might be mixed with fear for their safety and, let’s be honest, some suspicion that they are postponing getting a “real job.” It challenges our own beliefs about life and makes us uncomfortable. But isn’t this self-giving, this willingness to lay down one’s life, to let go, and to be the servant precisely what Jesus meant when he said “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”? [John 12:25]

Former Jesuit volunteers will say they are “ruined for life,” meaning there is no return to life as they once knew it. Their eyes have been opened. And once opened, they remain open. They cannot ignore the needs of the world. They have died to themselves, but what comes forth is far greater. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” [John 12:24a]

In the nearly five decades since Fr. Jack Morris, SJ started the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, more than “12,000 Jesuit volunteers have served tens of thousands of individuals and families at hundreds of sites around the world” including 38 locations here in the United States. I only wish the number was greater. Is it a luxury for a recent college graduate to be able to volunteer one or two years rather than seek employment? Yes, unfortunately it is. Most students have loans to pay off and don’t have the freedom for full-time volunteerism before entering the workforce. While it is not unheard of for someone to leave a lucrative career for a life of service, it is generally difficult to reverse the career track once it has been started. Still, some adults look for ways to serve in their retirement. I recently heard about a couple who, after the marriage of their youngest child, sold everything they owned and now live as lay missioners overseas. Wow.

Obviously, a sacrifice on this level is not for everyone, nor is it expected. Still, aren’t we are just like the Greeks who asked Phillip “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” But do we understand that to “see” Jesus is to enter into the reality of his life? “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” [John 12:24] In taking on the role of servant in whatever capacity our lives permit, we might be lucky enough to experience the same disastrous outcome as the Jesuit volunteers.

Ruin yourself for life; perhaps someone will see Jesus in you.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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For more on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, visit http://www.jesuitvolunteers.org. And to learn about Maryknoll Lay Missioners, visit http://www.mklm.org.