Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Wandering Feast of St. Matthias the Apostle, the man who replaced Judas

Almighty God, who in the place of Judas chose your faithful servant Matthias to be numbered among the Twelve: Grant that your Church, being delivered from false apostles, may always be guided and governed by faithful and true pastors; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

St. Matthias was the disciple chosen to take Judas' place. Now, there's an interesting position in which to be.

It's one thing to try to take the place of someone who is beloved, who is mourned and missed after they have left. But Judas? Judas, who betrayed with a kiss. Judas, who accepted money-- thirty shekels of silver coins, most likely-- to sell out his friends.

Judas, tradition tells us, killed himself, and the blood money he received he used to buy a field. Acts 1:18 has the particularly gruesome story about what happened to Judas as he walked in his field. St. Matthew's Gospel says that Judas hanged himself in remorse after trying to give the money back to Jesus' enemies who had paid him. Since the money was "blood money," the chief priests of the Temple could not accept the money back, and instead used it to buy a potter's field in which to bury paupers and strangers. No matter which story appeals more to you, the idea of Abel's blood "crying out from the ground" after he was slain by his brother, might come to mind from both of these stories.

Now, thirty silver coins may not sound like a lot to us. There are three different kinds of shekels that are mentioned in the Bible. But at the same time that Judas' drama was playing out, one kind of shekel was very important for the religious life of Israel. Each Jewish male over the age of twenty was required to pay an annual Temple Tax of one-half shekel. This is estimated at twice the daily wage of a common laborer in Palestine at that time. Therefore, a shekel was four times the daily wage of a laborer. Using this standard, Judas was paid four months' wages for his betrayal of Jesus. A third of a year's wages. A lot of money, certainly. But enough to convince you to betray those you love? It's still hard to imagine.

But Judas was associated with the concept of money. He was the apostle who was given the responsibility to keep the common purse for the holy association of Jesus and his apostles, according to the Gospel of John. Surely he was considered trustworthy to be given responsibility for the common purse, which makes his betrayal all the more appalling. The one most trusted by Jesus sells him to torture. If you who have ever been betrayed by someone who has claimed to love you, you can certainly identify with this story. And of course, those whom we love the most also have the power to hurt us the most. Our beloveds rest in close proximity to our hearts.

Entire theories have been written about the story of Judas, by scholars such as Garry Wills, Bertrand Russell and Raymond Brown, among others. The idea of whether Judas was merely helping Jesus fulfill his destiny creates quite a few conundra. Was Judas condemned to Hell? Was Judas a symbolic figure used to help fulfill prophecy? No matter what, thousands of words have been written, and his name has become synonymous with betrayal.

But what of St. Matthias? We can't even agree upon which day is his feast day. The Book of Common Prayer lists today as his feast, where it was celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church before 1970. However, in leap years, like this year, some believe that his feast day should be on February 25. Lutherans remember Matthias on February 24. However, the Church of England's Common Worship schedule lists his feast day as May 14. The Orthodox remember him on August 9.

So little is known from Scripture of Matthias, although there is a "Lost Gospel" attributed to him. He is not even mentioned in the Gospels, and the story of his choice by lottery to replace Judas is only told in the first chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. Clement of Alexandria tells us that he was one of the seventy-two (or seventy) disciples mentioned in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. He supposedly was martyred in Georgia (the country, not the state) and buried there, although Trier, Germany also claims his burial spot. There is an abbey dedicated to him, and supposedly Saint Helena (busy bee that she was in finding relics, like parts of the True Cross) was involved somehow in the removal of Matthias' body to that spot. He is depicted with an axe or a scimitar, since tradition holds that he was stoned, then beheaded.

His story doesn't appeal to us the way that the betrayal by Judas does. He is patron saint of alcoholics, victims of smallpox, and tailors; Billings, Montana, and Gary, Indiana claim his patronage as well. Nothing against Billings or Gary, but I think you see the problem.

Matthias was an also-ran. He wasn't as beloved by Jesus as Judas was. He was in the circle of seventy sent out to proclaim the gospel perhaps, but he wasn't originally in the inner circle. Just as the Old Testament reading (1 Samuel 16:1-13) for St. Matthias' feast talks of rejection of an annointed one, Matthias fulfilled the same purpose, but without the glory of being David. His election to the apostles was more to round out the number to twelve, as the other eleven still wept and wondered over the actions of the one that Matthias replaced.

I think many of us are like Matthias-- lives full of mystery and sacrifice unrecognized, with people confusing us with someone else, maybe even feeling second best. But the great thing about St. Matthias was, despite all the conjecture and the confusion, that he was actually chosen. As I struggle with answering the ways that God has chosen me, I will think about Matthias today. And, to be safe, tomorrow. Even though I may be confused in doing so. It won't be the first time or the last time, either.

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