Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles
Parts One & Two of this series gave us an overview of the Apostles and discussed the lessons we can learn from them. In Part 3, the final post in this series, we will look at the inspiration that can be drawn from the lives of Matthew, James the Lesser, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, Judas Iscariot, and Matthias.
Matthew underwent one of the greatest transformations of any of the Apostles. Before meeting Jesus, his name was Levi. More educated than most of the other Apostles, he could read, write, and figure sums. Due to his occupation as tax collector, he would also have had more money, though no higher social standing. Then, as now, tax collectors were extremely unpopular. They bought their position and were responsible to Rome for a certain amount of money each year. Anything over that amount was theirs, which naturally led to manipulation and dishonesty. Furthermore, because they were Jews working for the Roman oppressors, they were considered traitors and among the most hated people in Jewish society.
As such, Levi was probably the last person anyone expected to qualify as one of Jesus’ select group. Yet, Jesus called him and changed his name to Matthew, meaning “gift of God.” To the other Apostles, it must have been a shocking choice – not only the selection of Matthew but the new given name as well! It’s very likely that they tried to dissuade Jesus, fearing that having a despised tax collector as part of their group would reflect badly on all of them. But Jesus’ selection of Matthew taught the other Apostles about a segment of society with which they ordinarily would never have associated. They had to learn charity and tolerance for the sort of people to whom they would be bringing Christ’s message. This is a valuable lesson for us as well, that Jesus truly came to save all people, even those we consider lowly and despicable.
Despite his comfortable standard of living, Matthew was willing to chuck it all in an instant to follow Jesus. In order to appreciate the implications of this, we need to realize that for Matthew, unlike for any of the other Apostles, following Jesus meant there could be no turning back. The others all had a trade to which they could return; but once Matthew gave up his office, that was it. He would have no career to fall back on if he turned out to be wrong about Jesus. He would no longer fit in with his old friends, who would think he was crazy for giving up his comfortable life to follow some “religious fanatic.” Conversely, he was also despised by his fellow Jews and would not be welcomed into their society, either.
Because of his past, Matthew of all the Apostles probably had the most reason for gratitude at being chosen by Jesus. He never forgot his origins and what Jesus had done for him. In Matthew 10:3, he humbly refers to himself as “Matthew, the tax collector.” From Matthew we learn that gratitude and humility make sacrificing everything to follow Jesus not only possible, but a great joy, no matter what our shortcomings or circumstances.
James the Lesser
Also known as James the Just, or James son of Alphaeus, he is traditionally believed to be a cousin of Jesus; thus he is referred to as “the brother of the Lord.” James’ mother, Mary, was a kinswoman of the Mary the mother of Jesus, and was one of the women described in Mark 15:40 as being present at the Crucifixion. He is called “the Lesser” – meaning the younger or “little one” – to differentiate him from the other Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John. We do not know much about him. Around 170 A.D., the historian Hegesippus wrote of a James who had vowed to God not to drink wine nor eat meat except where Scripture enjoined him to, not to cut or anoint his hair or take baths, and spent so much time in prayer that it was said “the skin of his knees was tougher than a camel’s.” Although some modern Bible scholars disagree, tradition recognizes him as the same James who became the first Bishop of Jerusalem and wrote the New Testament epistle (Letter of James).
While most of the other Apostles dispersed to various parts of the world after Pentecost, James the Lesser stayed in Jerusalem, eventually assuming the role of Bishop of Jerusalem. He was spokesman in that city for the early Church, and faced much suspicion and many questions by the Jews there. He played an important role in determining how much of the Jewish traditions and obligations needed to be observed by “Followers of the Way,” as the early Christians were called. He eventually determined that only four Jewish traditions be imposed on Gentiles who wanted to follow the Way of Christ. We can assume from his important role in the early Church that he was diplomatic, patient, faithful, wise and fair-minded.
James the Lesser was martyred in 63 AD by being thrown off the roof of a temple and then clubbed to death by the Pharisees.
Here is another Apostle whose life is veiled in mystery. He actually went by three names: Thaddeus (“strong-chested”), Lebbaeus (“great-hearted”) and Judas of James. He speaks only once in the Gospel [John 14:22]. Tradition has it that he was the brother of James the Lesser, making him also a cousin of Jesus. But as with James, there is confusion about his identity. One 14th century writer claims he was the bridegroom at the wedding feast in Cana, where Jesus performed His first miracle by changing water into wine. Some modern biblical scholars hold the opinion that the Apostle Jude is not the same person who wrote the Epistle (Letter of Jude), as is traditionally believed. Nevertheless, ancient writings tell us that Jude preached in Judea, Samaria and Mesopotamia. St. Paulinus, writing hundreds of years later, tells us that Jude and Simon the Cananean suffered martyrdom in Persia, where they had gone as missionaries. They share the same feast day, October 28.
In the Letter of Jude, the early Christians are urged to persevere under the harsh, difficult circumstances imposed upon them by the world. Regardless of authorship, this advice is relevant to Christians living in our own trying times as well. Despite the obscurity of his life, Jude is today one of the most popular saints of the Catholic Church, and is known as the “patron of hopeless cases.” This should encourage those of us who feel that our lives are lived inconspicuously, that we are not famous public figures whose many words and actions are recorded for posterity. It shows us that we do not have to have the spotlight in order to make a difference in this world, and that God will reward us in the afterlife for deeds that may have gone unrecognized while we were here on earth.
Painting of the Apostle Jude Thaddeus in the Schottenkirche Church in Vienna, Austria
Simon the Cananean
Simon was also known as “the Zealot,” which means a Jewish patriot, extremist and political radical. The zealots awaited a Messiah who would be the new King of Israel and bring an end to Roman tyranny. They were not averse to using violence to obtain their objectives. Simon needed to learn new ways of dealing with the world, to love and forgive all people, even the Roman oppressors. This must have been very difficult for him indeed; yet he became a loyal follower of the Prince of Peace.
Through Simon’s example, we learn to tolerate and accept other people, to forgive our enemies, to labor untiringly for freedom and peace, and most of all, to be open and willing to follow God’s plan instead of our own ideas.
You may be surprised to find Judas included in an article about learning spiritual lessons from the Apostles. Yet Judas was one of the Twelve and lived in close familiarity with Our Lord for three years. We can learn from Judas’ mistakes as much as we can from the other Apostles. His name was Judas ish Kerioth – meaning “Judas from Kerioth,” a city in Judea. Short and dark, with hair falling in black ringlets, he was probably the most educated of the Twelve. Being the group’s treasurer, Judas would have worn under his outer garment a leather apron with two huge pockets in which he carried the money.
In Judas we have a true enigma. He can be regarded as the consummate villain or a tragically misguided soul. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. It’s unlikely that Jesus would have chosen as an Apostle a thoroughly evil man with no redeeming qualities, as this would have created constant turmoil within the group and would have reflected badly on Jesus’ mission. From what we can tell, Judas got along with the other Apostles and was efficient in his duties as treasurer. It’s certainly true that he had some wrong ideas and had to be chastised by Jesus on occasion, but in this regard he was no different from the other Apostles.
One theory for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is that he was motivated by greed and did it for the money. This seems unlikely, however, because the 30 pieces of silver he got for his betrayal was not a great amount in those days, surely not enough to induce him to commit such a heinous deed for the money alone. Perhaps he was promised more money or a prominent position of power in the future – we can only speculate about that.
Another, more plausible explanation is that Judas was disappointed and perhaps bitter at the failure of Jesus to immediately establish a successful and powerful earthly kingdom. By bringing Jesus before the Sanhedrin, Judas may have been trying to force Him into claiming the throne of David. Having been witness to so many of Jesus’ astounding miracles, Judas probably felt that if Jesus were really the Messiah, nothing could harm Him — He could simply perform a miracle to vanquish His enemies. Conversely, if Jesus were a false prophet, it was fitting that He should die, in which case Judas would be somewhat of a hero for delivering Him to the authorities. But as the trial proceeded and Judas realized what the outcome would be, he was filled with horror and remorse, trying in vain to call off the plot by returning the blood money.
There are two versions of what happened to Judas after the death of Jesus. Matthew 27 tells us that after his unsuccessful attempt to call off the deal, Judas flung away the 30 pieces of silver, went off and hung himself. But in Acts 1, Peter says that Judas bought a parcel of land with the money, then fell headlong and was disemboweled, probably by falling on his own sword. Whether this was an accident or suicide is not specified. Either way, the end result was the same.
We shall never know, on this earth, what motivated Judas. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that his greatest sin was not his betrayal of Jesus, as this was part of God’s preordained plan of salvation. Judas’ great mistake was in despairing of God’s forgiveness. God in His mercy would not have preordained the loss of Judas’ soul. Judas could have repented of his disloyalty and gone on to do great works as an Apostle, as Peter did, rather than surrender to despair. It’s impossible to not feel some compassion for this unhappy man, because all of us are fallible. We can only hope that at the last moment, Judas made his peace with God.
The sad example of Judas warns us to beware of the things in our lives which we choose over God, be they goals, possessions or people; to resist our human tendencies toward greed, rancor and blind ambition; and to put our faith in God’s wisdom as to how destiny should unfold. Most importantly, we learn from Judas never to despair, because no sin of ours is ever greater than God’s mercy and love.
After the death of Jesus, the Apostles replaced Judas with Matthias, restoring their number to twelve. Matthias had been a disciple since the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s likely that he felt some disappointment when he wasn’t initially included in the original Twelve. He probably never dreamed he’d ever be one of these chosen Apostles. But as it was, God had great plans for Matthias – just as He has for each of us, if we are willing to wait trustingly for God’s will to manifest in our lives according to His timetable rather than our own.
This brings us full circle in our exploration of the lives, character and personalities of the diverse and fascinating men chosen by Christ to share so intimately in His life and form the foundation of His Church. As we study each Apostle, we recognize many of their flaws in ourselves and are inspired by their virtues. We realize how all of them, with the exception of Judas, rose above their personal weaknesses to become the great saints we honor today. Knowing how Christ transformed them, we are confident that He can and will transform us, as well. We only need to have, as did the Apostles, the willingness to be transformed.