Harrowing Of Hell
May 16, 2021

Luck in the Kingdom of God: Barsabbas and Matthias

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

So, there they are, Peter and 10 others sitting in Jerusalem waiting for the Holy Spirit to come upon them as Jesus had promised. A few days before they had witnessed the Ascension. There they stood on the top of the Mount of Olives as Jesus materialized into heaven; as his physical being became the light and the lightness of God. 120 of them saw it.

Now we find them in the upper room. They are discussing next steps. Judas is gone, and there are now only 11 apostles. Naturally they need one more. Twelve seems the lucky number in Judaism: The 12 sons of Joseph, the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 Apostles of Jesus, the 12 Commandments of Moses. No, I guess that was 10 Commandments… easier to keep track of on your fingers.

It would probably have been even easier if there had only been 5 apostles, maybe then we would remember all their names, one for each finger on your hand! There is Peter and James and John and Andrew and… Judas. Everyone remembers Judas, of course. He betrayed Jesus, and then, in remorse, bought a field, and there hung himself on a tree.

And so, they needed to replace him with a new Apostle, to have 12. The criteria was simple: the man needed to have been with them from the Baptism of Jesus to his Ascent from the Mount of Olives. It seems that two of them fit the bill. There was Justus, also known as Judas or Joseph son of Barsabbas, we’ll call him Barsabbas. And there was Matthias.

So, the two of them were brought before the 11, and they were prayed over. Peter said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these you have chosen to take Judas’s place in this ministry.” Imagine being either Barsabbas or Matthias standing there wondering… “Do I have a pure heart?” and so, anxiously waiting with bated breath.

And the apostles, sitting there in the upper room, look at each other and say to one another: “These are both good guys. How can we judge?”  So, they pray some more, and still …  “These are both good guys. How can we judge?” It doesn’t say that in the Bible of course, I’m just reading into it, because then Peter decides they will cast lots, for to his mind, what might seem like luck to us, was in the ancient world a way of determining the will of God.

And so, he writes “M” on one stone and “B” on another stone, and puts them in a vase, and shakes the vase, then flips it over, and the first stone to land on the ground is the one who will be the new apostle…the one with the most-pure heart (so they say). Peter shakes that vase, and he turns it over, and “M” hits the ground before “B,” and Matthias becomes the next apostle, and everyone looks at Barsabbas and wonders what does God know about his heart that we don’t?

And Barsabbas, was maybe wondering the same thing, still he goes over and congratulates Matthias, because that is what Jesus would do. Matthias it seems is the lucky one.

And so, this story got me wondering about luck.  Was it by luck that Matthias got chosen and Barsabbas got bumped? Was this the will of God? Is this how God works, through casting of lots? Is that the kind of God we have… a gambling God, a random God, a God of chance? Is life just about the roll of the dice… and some are lucky, and some are unlucky? That doesn’t seem right, does it?

And so, I got interested in luck, and did a little research. I stumbled across a psychologist named Richard Wiseman who has done some research on luck. Wiseman defines luck as appearing at the confluence of chance and consciousness; in other words, at that point when we realize that some chance event has just impacted our life, either positively or negatively. As these chance events come to our consciousness, (and this is my interpretive addition) they are then overlayed with cultural values, to determine whether or not the event was lucky or unlucky.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you’re walking down a path, and the big rock falls and just misses you by a foot… are you lucky or are you unlucky? Lucky is that the rock missed you, unlucky is that you were on the path in the first place. But here is the cultural overlay: both perspectives would agree that you were lucky because you came away alive, and “alive” is a value in our culture.

Similarly, if you play the lotto and win $50 million, you are lucky because money is a high value in our culture. Similarly, if you put out an Instagram post that goes viral, you are lucky because internet status is a high value in our culture.

In our culture good luck is defined by something our system considers good…like long life, and money, and status. And Wiseman believes this luck can be made, or at least maximized, by living into four particular attributes.

He lists the attributes as:

  • Noticing chance events.
  • Listening to our hutches.
  • Seeing the silver-lining.
  • Expecting good things to happen to you.

Now when you overlay

  1. noticing events,
  2. hunches,
  3. silver-lining,
  4. Expecting good,

(when you over lay these) onto the lot casting experience of Matthias and Barsabbas it is hard to connect the luck dots between the “M” stone beating the “B” stone to the ground…

But then you remember that Peter and apostles were looking for people who had been with Jesus from his baptism to his ascension, and you realize that the attributes that Matthias and Barsabbas displayed over the past three years may well have included:  noticing chance events, listening to hunches, seeing the silver lining, and expecting good things to happen to them

And then the “M” stone fell more quickly than the “B” stone, and Matthias was chosen as the 12th apostle… he was the lucky one, he was the one chosen by the other apostles… but was he also chosen by God? Was he chosen by God through the bounce of a stone? And the answer is an unqualified “yes!” Matthias was chosen by God to be the 12th apostle, and Barsabbas wasn’t chosen by God to be the 12th apostle. But does that make Matthias lucky and Barsabbas unlucky?

And the answer is “yes” only if you are cramming the answer into the human value of status. Yes, your mom would rather brag about you as being the 12th apostle and not the almost 12th apostle that lost by casting lot… But that is mom, and not God.  God doesn’t compute status; (or wealth or even long life).

God’s value system is different. It is bigger. It is eternal. It is built on love, and based on faithfulness, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness… like the kindness Barsabbas showed Matthias when he congratulated him on becoming the 12th apostle.

Was Barsabbas disappointed? Maybe. Or maybe he was relieved. But if he was disappointed that is OK. It is OK to be disappointed. That is normal. And God is still trustworthy. God is still good. God is still faithful.

It turns out we find Barsabbas later in the Book of Acts as the one chosen to go with Paul and Barnabas to Antioch to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. That was a big deal, and so, unquestionably, Barsabbas played a huge role in changing the world. 

What happened to Matthias then? We don’t hear about him again in the Bible, and the tradition is unclear.  Some say he died in Sebastopolis, Turkey, others say he was stoned to death in Jerusalem, and then decapitated; I’ve even heard that he was killed by cannibals in Ethiopia. All outcomes sound like bad luck… No money, no status, no long life… Sounds pretty unlucky unless, of course, you are a Christian.

Because luck in the Christian vernacular is not measured by a human value system, but by love, faithfulness, thoughtfulness, generosity, and kindness. This is the luck that exists within the value system of God.

Here is the interesting thing; as I further considered Richard Wiseman’s research on luck, I saw how his four attributes could be viewed from another angle to reflect patterns of life in harmony with the world as God designed it to be lived in.

  1. Noticing chance events, becomes noticing God.
  2. Listening to hunches, becomes the act of perpetual prayer.
  3. Seeing the silver-lining, becomes living in hope.
  4. Expecting good things, becomes trusting in God.

Isn’t that interesting? Seems there is a lot of room for psychology within the kingdom of God. No surprise. God invented psychology.

We know how lucky we are when: We notice God. When a chance event takes place and we see it as an insight into what God is calling us to do. When a chance event, like one rock falling faster than another, determines our livelihood, we give thanks to God, irrespective of outcome, rather than being disappointed by a fleeting human value system. We are lucky when we notice God.

We pray to God. We train ourselves to listen deeply to what God is calling us to do. We practice this conversation of prayer, and so, for what to others may seem a like hunch, to us seems a calling. We are lucky when we pray to God.

We hope in God. Hope is turning our eyesight towards God’s vision for creation. Hope is understanding that the evolution that is happening in the world around us is towards God’s good purposes. Hope is knowing that the Kingdom of God, right here right now, is laying pavement toward the kingdom that is yet to come. Hope sets us in a cycle of redemption, and transformation, driven by the love of God. We are lucky when we hope in God.

And finally, we trust God. To trust God is to know that God is always with us, at every single moment in time, and that God loves us. And because God loves us and because God is with us then we are always safe. And while that safety does not ensure the upholding of human value like long life, great wealth, or lasting status, it does ensure the deeper values of the Kingdom of God… faithfulness, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, and love. We are lucky when we trust God.

That was Barsabbas’s life, and it was Matthias’s life as well. Luck can really only be understood when we orient our life to God; and what we see then, is that everyone is lucky… because, as Christians, your life is not confined to fickle human values, but to well-rooted Kingdom of God realities like faithfulness, thoughtfulness, generosity, kindness, and love.

We know our luck when we notice God, when we pray to God, when we hope in God, and when we trust in God. That is when we realize just how lucky we are to be children of God. Just like Matthias, and just like Barsabbas.