Saint Matthias’s Day


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(February 24) 

Almighty God, who… didst choose Thy faithful servant Matthias…
Acts 1:15-26
Matthew 11:25-30

Just about everything we know of Matthias is contained in the Reading from Acts. There are some traditions about his death and burial and the transportation of his bones but none of this amounts to much theologically or historically. He will be forever remembered for his passive part in this remarkable story at the beginning of Acts. Peter clearly thought that it was an absolute necessity within a few days of the Ascension to restore the Apostolic quota to 12 to correspond with the tribes of Israel. Justus and Matthias were short listed as having been with Jesus since his baptism by John and Matthias was elected by the ancient Jewish tradition of drawing lots.

The lurid picture which Peter paints of the treason and death of Judas stands in stark contrast with the concluding lines of the Gospel: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light”. We are told by Jesus that we will not be asked to do anything for which we will not be given the resources but Judas, who had the privilege of personal contact with Jesus, turned his back on such resources and chose the fatal way. We will never know why; the portraits we have of Judas are pseudo history written with the gift of hindsight and with more than an element of scapegoating in them. We know that Judas committed the actual act of betrayal and that Peter openly spoke his denial of Jesus but all the Apostles initially fled at the arrest of Jesus although Peter and John stayed on the fringes through the trial and John came to the Cross. We must also presume that Justus and Matthias also fled when Jesus was arrested

This passage in Acts raises three key issues. First, the practice of scapegoating was, in many ways, benign in the Jewish tradition, it acted as a communal moral purgative and allowed people to start their lives again after a period of unfaithfulness but the sacrifice involved an animal not a human being. Today whenever something goes wrong there is a strong temptation to find one person who has to take the blame for all the rest of us. We have even evolved a slightly ironic tone when we say “society is to blame” because that would implicate us. We do not want to consider that individual acts of vicious youth crime result from a callous and coarse culture, ranking money over parenting, sensation over self control, gratification over self denial and self interest over society. We remember the initial maxim of Prime Minister Blair only in part; we applaud his “tough on crime” but tend to forget “tough on the causes of crime”. In a way which we do not like to accept, our selfishness and self satisfaction are the causes of crime; we are collectively the causes of crime. Criminals emerge from among us.

Secondly, the act of scapegoating allows us to divide society into the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous, the saint and the sinner. Part of that segregation arises from economic stratification effected by the rich who want to separate themselves radically from the poor. Not since slavery have the economic classes been more segregated and stratified; most middle class people can now go through life without any knowledge of real poverty and degradation except when they visit poor countries on holiday and accidentally take a wrong turning into a slum. Having divided ourselves from our poorer brothers and sisters and having arranged everything to our social and economic advantage, we then compound the evil by looking down on those we have abandoned.

The third message is most sharply set out at the beginning of Tom Wolf’s The Bonfire of The Vanities in which Sherman McCoy, simply by taking the wrong turn off a freeway, has his whole life completely wrecked. There is a whole literature of “what if?” and its popularity relies upon our recognition of its basic truth: some of us are not found out, are plausible liars, cannot use violence effectively, are warned in time. One minute we are acting as a criminal and then something happens which nudges us out of the fatal path. What we ascribe to virtue might simply be a matter of luck. How can we square these ideas with a providential God? The not very spectacular answer lies in the nature of relationship rather than doctrine. Only God knows what hand we were dealt and how we have played it. To elevate this private realm to generalisations about ethics or the conduct of others is to misunderstand our purpose as creatures.

The story of Matthias reminds us that we do not know what is to happen to us. One minute he is saying his prayers with the whole company of disciples, the next he is one of two candidates for an awesome position and then he is elected. Difficult though this situation may be, it is not so bad as suffering a sudden reversal such as the one which, for whatever reason, Judas suffered. We should not need to be reminded that life is uncertain and that self satisfaction is a rather shallow emotion. There are some games in which players are dealt a fixed number of cards which they then play but in most games one plays cards and receives new ones. We never know what card God will deal next and to whom.

Starting Points for Sermons and Discussions:

  1. Does Judas receive a fair deal from the Gospels?
  2. Why are we so anxious to establish individual culpability for mismanagement and crime?
  3. What is the link between our political behaviour and the life chances of individual people?
  4. Recall an incident in your life which almost happened and which might have changed it forever
  5. As the metaphor of card games is somewhat crude, think of some other ways of explaining the uncertainty of life.

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