Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 1:15-17,20-26 / Psalm 103 / 1 John 4:11-16 / John 17:11-19
The election of a pope always makes for a good story. For Catholics, all bishops are successors to the original apostles, though only the pope, the bishop of Rome, claims succession from a particular apostle - Peter. One exception of course is the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, the ignominious apostle who betrayed Christ with a kiss. Today’s first reading records the event of selecting a replacement from two nominees: Matthias and Judas (aka Barsabbas). Both had the necessary credentials, being bona fide witnesses of the risen Lord. After much discussion and prayer, Acts tells us, the eleven apostles commend their choice to the Holy Spirit by casting lots (apostolic succession by the role of the dice might explain the strange idiom: holy crap(s)!). The Holy Spirit chooses Matthias: and we never hear of him again. Understandable enough. It couldn’t have been easy – taking over for Judas Iscariot – too much baggage, too many bad memories. This might explain the Spirit’s decision of choosing Matthias over Judas Barsabbas; a successor with the same first name as the traitor might prove problematic – people easily get confused.
The election of popes throughout the millennia have likewise been ascribed to the decision of the Holy Spirit. Though, if you’ve been watching Showtime’s The Borgias, about the papacy of Alexander VI, you might wonder about the wisdom of the Holy Spirit’s choice. But, who knows, the alternative might have been even worse. My favorite pope by the way is Clement VII, one of the Medici popes (who reigned a bit after the Borgia one), whom Ludwig von Pastor, in his classic History of the Popes, ranked as one of the worst – bastard that he was.
Although it’s easier to assent to the reality of divine intervention in the selection of a good pope (or, at least, a moral one) this reference to divine intervention poses a dilemma for the modern believer because it reflects ultimately how we view our own lot in life: how we came to be and what we’ve done with what we got. Phrased in differing ways, the dilemma is all about free will. How much free will do we really have; and how much free choice do we really exercise in the many decisions, major and minor, we make throughout our lives. The Church teaches that human beings possess free will – this is a tenet of faith to which Catholics are required to assent; but, as to how much free will we have - the Church has never said. The more we learn from neuroscience and psychology, for instance, the less real choice we seem to have; or, if we have it at all, it must be very limited indeed. An even more disturbing prospect: Could divine providence – that mysterious Holy Spirit - move us to make a bad choice to achieve a good end?
The pathetic figure of Judas Iscariot looms at the heart of that question. Regarding his own destiny on the cross, Jesus seems nearly obsessed with telling his disciples that the Messiah must suffer and die so as to fulfill the dictates or prophecies of scripture. Skeptics claim that the gospels had to put these words into Jesus’ mouth in order to explain such an ignominious death and, further, to defend his choice of Judas Iscariot as an apostle in the first place (if Jesus was God, the jaded might argue, he surely must have known!).
And so was Judas, poor Judas, just a dastardly coward who sold out his friend for money; or was he a dedicated but misguided follower who had his own ideas about how things should turn out; or, shuddering to contemplate, was he the servant par excellence, an agent of divine destiny that made the prophecies of scripture come true – a necessary hinge in the divine plan of redemption?
Bob Dylan put the question best in his old ballad, With God On Our Side
Through many dark hour /
I’ve been thinking about this
That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for /
You have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side
If you were to take Bob Dylan up on it, your decision regarding Judas Iscariot might not be so academic; it would reflect your take about how you view the meaning of chance and providence, choice and destiny in your own life - whether or not you are or ever will be a successor to an apostle or just an ordinary soul making sense of the lots cast that has become your life, that hand of cards you’ve been dealt.