A Game of Chance

Readings: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Isaiah 4:2-6; Acts 1:12-17, 21-26

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

In those days Peter stood among the believers (together with the crowd numbered about one hundred and twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus – For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place. And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:12-17, 22-26, NRSV

There came a time when Judas Iscariot, having given up his life on the Field of Blood, needed to be replaced among the ranks of the apostles. There were only eleven of them. They wanted an even dozen. Peter, always the emboldened one, put forth the names of two men:Joseph (Barsabbas) and Matthias. After having prayed about the matter, the group agreed on the selection process. They would cast lots, which is akin to drawing straws.

WAIT…WHAT? This is the apostleship we’re talking about! Are they just going to gamble on it? Shouldn’t they conduct interviews? Stage a debate? Maybe hold an apostle’s decathlon? At the very least, shouldn’t they vote? Nope. The next apostle was going to be chosen by a game of pure chance. Well, you may remember the outcome. Matthias won and was granted entry into that esteemed circle.

Now, pardon my impertinence, but it seems to me that Jesus might have granted both gentlemen entry into the club – along with their wives (We know Jesus’ feeling about exclusion. It was an equal protection issue for him.).

So why this obsession with the number 12? Yes, I know Jesus himself chose 12 disciples. But he also appointed a different, much larger group of persons (70 or so) to spread the news. I can’t help but wonder why they were so intent at keeping their number at a dozen. Was it because that’s the way it had always been? Or did it have something to do with the 12 sons of Jacob? Or 12 as a covenantal number? Did these people really think that deeply about numerology?

And what of poor Joseph? Did he need to seek counseling to reconcile his hurt over this slight in favor of Matthias? Or maybe, just maybe, Joseph was secretly relieved not to have been chosen?

Such questions are, of course, unanswerable. It’s probably better not to have all the answers. Socrates didn’t like answers very much, at least not the surface variety. He spent most of his life asking questions and little else.

Mary Oliver wrote a poem about that entitled The Man Who Has Many Answers:

The man who has many answers

is often found

in the theaters of information

Where he offers, graciously

His deep findings.

While the man who has only questions,

to comfort himself, makes music.

Offered by Bryan Fredrickson, child of God.

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I am a Christian educator and writer.I have worked in churches, denominational offices, and seminaries. I have a PhD in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary, with a focus on Practical Theology and educating in faith. In 2010, my book, "How the Other Half Lives: the challenges facing clergy spouses and partners," was published by Pilgrim Press. I believe that words can build doorways that lead to encounters with God through the Spirit.

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