Easter 7

Easter is a wild ride in the book of Acts. We go from Acts 10 on Easter to Acts 4 then back up to chapter three then back to 4, to 10, to 8 and this week we go back to chapter 1. Whew!

The book of Acts is the second part of Luke’s “orderly account” of Jesus which focused on the development of the early church. In Acts the church works in harmony but already there were signs of problems to come. Acts minimizes the problems (Paul remembered his argument with Peter in much sharper terms than does the writer of Acts {Acts 15 versus Galatians 2:11-14}). Acts also is full of some very interesting details which merit more attention than they usually get.

Chapter 1 of Acts is a very busy chapter. Jesus ascends into heaven, we hear about the fate of Judas and there is an election to replace him.

Jesus’ ascension is discussed on Ascension Day which is the 40th day after Easter (always on a Thursday). There used to be an Ascension Sunday but we don’t do that anymore and since you can’t get people out anymore for an Ascension Day service (multiple tries-multiple fails) that event fades into obscurity. This is a shame because the theology of the resurrection is intimately tied up with the ascension. It is not simply Jesus means of transport (Uber?) into heaven. In fact, one should probably speak of resurrection/ascension as part of one continual event. But, we shant speak of it here.

That brings us to the replacement of Judas. Ah, the replacement of Judas. This is a very interesting story. Matthew and Luke are the only gospels to comment on the fate of Judas. Judas simply fades away in Mark and John. Matthew and Luke’s stories are very different but find agreement on the name of a certain field; Hekeldama or field of blood. But Matthew and Luke seem more interested in the source of the name of the field than agreement on the circumstances of Judas’ death.

Hekeldama comes from two Aramaic words that literally mean “blood field.” In Matthew the field is was potter’s field because the ground was composed of a rich dark red clay. Such clay was ideal for making pottery and since at least the time of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 19:2) the area above the Hinnom Valley was associated with pottery. Here in Berks county we also have large swaths of rich red clay and I can easily see why you might associate such soil with blood. Tomatoes hate it.

Matthew’s etiology (story of the source) of the name “Field of Blood” is not sourced in the type of soil but in how the field was procured. Matthew explained that Judas repented and returned the money he had received for his betrayal of Jesus. But since the money had been paid for what Judas himself described as “the sin of betraying innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4) the temple official would not mingle the funds with other Temple treasury money since to do so would render the Temple treasury funds “unclean” as a result of their contact with the “blood money.” Therefore, the Temple officials used the money to buy the red clay potter’s field in order to bury foreigners. There is no direct indication in Matthew that Judas is buried in this field.

That the field was purchased with money that had been designated “blood money” is the reason in Matthew that the field was called Field of Blood TO THIS DAY. And as Matthew is always excited to do, he cited a scriptural fulfillment this time from Jeremiah. The passage Matthew cites does not exist (It’s fun to watch Biblical literalist struggle to explain this), the closest passage might be in Zechariah 11:12-13 but no field purchase is mentioned there. The blood referenced in Matthew is Jesus’ blood this is very different than Luke’s emphasis.

In Luke the field is called Hekeldama (Field of Blood) but for very different reasons. Luke presents a particularly graphic image of Judas’ fate parenthetically to set up the circumstances leading to the election of Matthias as his replacement.

In Luke Judas does not repent and return the money instead he used the money to buy the field itself. While in the field he fell forward and burst open spilling his entrails. I remember, as an adolescent, hearing this story and trying to figure out how such a thing might happen. Did he hit a pointy rock? We are not told. In the days when I was anxious to reconcile contrary biblical accounts of similar events I imagined that Judas hung himself (as in Matthew) and then the rope broke and he burst in two when he hit the ground (ala Luke).

The blood of Judas becomes the source of the name, “Field of Blood” and the scriptural explanation for the whole event is stitched together from two Psalms  (Psalm 69 and 109). Clearly for Luke the whole point of the story is to explain the upcoming election of another disciple to take the place of Judas. Luke has no sympathy for Judas, where Matthew, at least, narrates a repentant if suicidal character.

I can’t help but be fascinated by little biblical vignettes like the one recounting the fate of Judas. Why are Matthew and Luke, who share so many commonalities, so divided over the fate of Judas?

Perhaps the difference might be found in where Luke was headed in the book of Acts. The Acts of the Apostles is Luke’s attempt to explain the beginning of the Church and establish its authority as a continuing witness to the resurrected Jesus. To establish credibility Luke makes a few adjustment to the gospel tradition passed down to him.

First, he doesn’t transmit all of the criticisms of the twelve and especially Peter first recorded by Mark. Mark presents the disciples as little better than morons and Peter is moron in chief. Luke softens the criticism in his gospel.

Secondly, Luke seeks to explain the apostasy of Judas. Judas’ betrayal was a bitter blow as you can well imagine. Explaining Judas has been a preoccupation of the church ever since.

Luke doesn’t worry so much about the ultimate fate of Judas but he is anxious to maintain the number of disciples at 12. This symbolic number refers back to the 12 tribes of Israel. Since Luke provides a structure for the future and established the importance of continuity with God’s work in the past Judas had to be replaced.

So a special election is held. The criterion for election was that one man who had accompanied Jesus from the time of his baptism through the ascension be elected. There were two candidates identified. How many other people fit this criteria?

To qualify you had to be a follower of Jesus since the baptism of John. If he is referring to Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3) then none of the 12 qualify since Jesus doesn’t call disciples until two chapters later (Luke 5). Luke must be thinking of something else perhaps these two (Matthias and Joseph called Barsabbas also known as Justus) are former disciples of John the Baptist as the Gospel of John depicts Andrew.

Matthias was chosen by lot (some kind of object “thrown” like dice) and prayer. If you ask me, Justus simply had too many aliases!

(Although the times would not permit it, it is interesting that a woman would not be considered according to the conditions described. None of the disciples were with Jesus during his most crucial time following his arrest, trial and crucifixion, nor do any show up at the tomb until bidden by the diligent women. Luke explicitly tells us that women followed Jesus the whole time! {See Luke 8, Luke 24})

So Matthias is elected the 12th man (take that Seattle!) and Luke never mentions him again; actually no one does.

So what is Luke trying to accomplish in this account? Well that is what we have to figure out. I believe it is mostly about the integrity of the ministry of the church as a consistent and faithful witness to the resurrection of Jesus. But I am interested in your thoughts.

What do you think is going on here?

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