Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 3

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

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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

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.

Jude Thaddeus

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.

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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.

Judas Iscariot

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.

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Matthias

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.

Summary

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.

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Photo courtesy of CatholicLink 

 

 

Ordinary Men, Extraordinary Lives-Pt. 2

Spiritual Lessons from the Apostles

 

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Part One of this series gave us an overview of the Apostles and discussed the lessons we can learn from Simon Peter in particular. In Part Two we will look at the inspiration that can be drawn from the lives of Andrew, James and John, Philip, Bartholomew and Thomas.

Andrew

Before meeting Jesus, Andrew and his younger brother Simon Peter, along with James and John, were partners in a fishing business. Andrew and John were disciples of John the Baptist; they were the first to follow Jesus when the Baptist pointed him out as “the Lamb of God” [John 1:36]. Later, Andrew brought Simon Peter to Jesus. Yet although Peter, James and John became part of the Lord’s “inner circle,” granted special confidences and privileges, Andrew did not. I often wonder how he felt about this. Was he hurt? Did he struggle to rise above jealousy and envy? Being human, he probably did.

Although perhaps not so strong a leader as his brother Peter, Andrew was active in bringing others to Christ. In contrast to the bemused Philip, he was resourceful enough to tell Jesus about the boy who had the loaves and fishes [John 6].

Andrew also helped the hesitant Philip inform Jesus that a group of Greeks wanted to meet him [John 12:2022]. This suggests that Andrew understood Jesus’ call to save all people, not just the Jews. It’s a safe bet that Andrew was a strong organizer and administrator among the Apostles.

Andrew traveled to Asia Minor, Scythia and as far as Kiev to preach the Gospel of Christ. He was crucified in Achaea in Greece, on an X-shaped cross, upon which he suffered for two days before he died. He is often pictured in art with the X-shaped cross as an identifying symbol.

Andrew inspires us to lead others to Christ and to conquer envy and jealousy in order to serve the greater good. In Andrew’s strong, quiet, solid character, we see a shining example of the humility that acknowledges that God can accomplish great good through those who don’t care who gets the recognition.

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James and John

These brothers were the sons of Zebedee, a respected and prosperous Galilean fisherman with an explosive temper. Because of this, Jesus nicknamed James and John “sons of thunder.” They apparently inherited their father’s temper: when the Samaritans refused to welcome Jesus and the Apostles, James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume the whole village. This attitude, needless to say, was not appreciated by the Master.

Their ambitious mother, Salome, a close relative of  Mary, the Mother of Jesus, joined James and John in demanding that they be given positions of power in Christ’s kingdom. This caused resentment among the other Apostles. As Jesus pointed out, whatever we do in the name of God must be done for the purpose of serving Him and humankind, not for personal gratification or recognition. This teaches us to beware of the hunger for power that exists today, even within the Church, and to realize that along with God’s gifts and privileges come tremendous responsibility and sometimes great hardship.

James, believed to be the elder brother, was a fair-minded, modest man with a quieter nature than John. Although James and John were usually inseparable, James was not with his brother after Jesus’ arrest.

James later became a leading spirit in the early Church and was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom. James was beheaded with a sword by order of Herod Agrippa around 44 A.D., making him the second martyr of the Christian church (St. Stephen being the first, in 34 A.D.). James did indeed “drink the cup that Jesus drank.”

John always referred to himself as the “disciple Jesus loved.” Of course, Christ loved everyone, but John may have been the “Teacher’s Pet.” The youngest, and perhaps the only unmarried one, John was treated with paternal affection. He was the only Apostle present at the Crucifixion. Affectionate and trustworthy, it was to his care that Jesus entrusted his precious Mother.

John is recorded as the first to recognize Jesus at the Sea of Galilee after the Resurrection [John 21:1-7]. However, it was Peter who jumped into the sea to get to Jesus as soon as he heard John’s exclamation, “It is the Lord!” These little anecdotes, so revealing of personality, are what make the Apostles so endearing.

From John we learn loyalty. Even when the chips were down and the other Apostles deserted Jesus, John remained with Him to the end. In caring for Jesus’ Mother, he is a fine example of how we should care for the grieving, the lonely, the needy, the elderly.

John’s greatest legacy is love. Under the tender tutelage of his beloved Master, John gradually learned to channel his assertiveness into an active and enduring charity for all. This fiery young man, who once wanted to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and who with James once called for vengeance on their enemies, came to be known as the Apostle of Love.

John refers to Christian love more than two dozen times in his Epistles. When we are tempted to strike back in anger and revenge against those who have hurt us, we can look to John and the lessons in love he learned from Christ, who was Love Incarnate.

Philip

In the Gospel of John, Philip is the first to whom Jesus says, “Follow me” [John 1:43]. Philip brought his friend Bartholomew to Jesus, thus recruiting another Apostle.

Although a devoted follower, Philip possessed a childlike nature and sometimes showed a weakness of faith. When Jesus told the Apostles to feed the crowd of five thousand, it was Philip who protested, “Two hundred days wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little bit!” [John 6:7].

Philip reminds us of how often in our own lives we, too, doubt God’s ability to take care of our needs. In John 14:8, Philip tells Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” Even as we smile at this naïve request, we realize how many times we ask God for signs to bolster our own weak faith, how often we lack confidence in the gifts and abilities Jesus promised in answer to Philip: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father….Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these” [John 14:9, 12].

Bartholomew/Nathaniel

Early lore describes Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, as being tall, handsome and distinguished, with his clothing trimmed in fashionable purple. Born in Cana, Bartholomew worked as a vinedresser before joining Jesus. Both he and his friend Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Peter and Andrew. Bartholomew was inclined to meditate. Perhaps this is what he was doing when Philip found him under the fig tree.

He was honest and straightforward, though sometimes inclined to be critical and prejudiced. He never hesitated to say what he thought. When Philip told them about Jesus, Bartholomew retorted, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” [John 1:46].

Despite his initial prejudice, he was open-minded enough to meet Jesus, who called him “a man without guile,” and “a true son of Israel.”

Bartholomew quickly had a change of heart and was the first recorded as calling Jesus “the son of God and King of Israel.” After the Crucifixion, he was part of the group that went fishing and saw Jesus at the Sea of Tiberius.

From Bartholomew we learn to have the sincerity to speak our mind while being willing to admit our mistakes, the faith to see the Divine hand in the events of our lives, and the open-mindedness to look beyond our prejudices to see ourselves and our fellow humans in the light of truth.

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Thomas

There is little said of Thomas except in the Gospel of John. This is enough to bring out his skeptical and somewhat pessimistic nature. Although his given name was Judas, he was called by the Greek name “Didymus,” translated Thomas or twin, although nothing is known about any siblings.

Thomas had worked in Galilee as a stonemason and carpenter, so he and Jesus must have had a lot in common. Thomas, though slow to believe and quick to give up, was a brave and reliable man with an ardent love for the Master. He was ready to follow Him even to the grave. When Jesus proposed going to Judea to see Lazarus, Thomas exclaimed impulsively, “Let us also go, to die with him!” [John 11:16].

During the last supper, Thomas asked Jesus, “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” [John 14:5-6].

The most famous incident involving Thomas is, of course, his refusal to believe in Jesus’ Resurrection until he had seen and touched Him, at which time he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

Thomas asked questions before he acted. He wanted to understand why he was doing something. Jesus may have chosen him for that very reason. Thomas’ healthy skepticism would show the world that Jesus’ disciples were not just blind followers, but had minds that examined and weighed what was presented to them. When his questions were answered, Thomas was a man of devotion and courage.

Pope St. Gregory the Great said of him: “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside and our faith is strengthened.”

From Thomas we learn discernment, to challenge and evaluate the sometimes overwhelming information and opinions with which modern society bombards us. In spiritual matters, we need to understand the deeper meaning behind what we do, lest religion becomes for us a matter of empty ritual and boring routines.

Like Thomas, we must realize that no matter how great our knowledge of spiritual matters, we can never fully comprehend them all. Rather, our deep and enduring faith sustains us in times of doubt, helping us to believe even when we cannot see or fully understand the great mystery of God and his plan for our lives.

In Part Three: Matthew, James the lesser, Jude Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot.