The Casting of Lots

Even after thirty years as a Catholic, I still think of the Feast of St. Matthias as falling on February 24th, but we kept it with great solemnity today, with plenty of incense, a young men’s schola chanting the minor propers, and all the patrimonial bells (no whistles, however). Actually, I think the change in date was a good thing. Unless Ash Wednesday came especially late, St. Matthias' Day often fell within the Lenten season, but having it on May 14th means it’s closer to the time of the ascension – and historically it was soon after that event that the “casting of lots” took place. So I’ve adjusted myself to the kalendar.

St. Matthias had been a follower of Jesus and was probably one of the seventy-two disciples. After our Lord’s ascension into heaven, the nascent Church was gathered in prayer and St. Peter said that it was right to choose an apostle to replace Judas. He said it should be someone who had been with Jesus from the time of His baptism in the Jordan until the ascension. Two names were proposed: one was Matthias, and the other was Joseph, called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus). Both of them were good men, but since the Church needed only one, they prayed and asked God to reveal the right choice. This is where the “casting of lots” came in. Sometimes people have the mistaken notion that this was akin to gambling, or some kind of game of chance, and there are those who think perhaps it wasn’t the most appropriate means of determining God’s Will in the matter.

Actually, casting lots was a fairly common way of making a decision. When we look back through Scripture, we come across it pretty often. It was the method used to choose the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:8); it was used to determine the priests’ duties in the temple (I Chronicles 24:5); during the terrible storm at sea, poor Jonah was determined to be the guilty one by the casting of lots (Jonah 1:7). For us, it has the unsavoury connection with the crucifixion, since it was by casting lots that the soldiers divided our Lord’s clothing (St. Matthew 27:35). In the case of choosing a replacement for Judas, it was settled in this way because of the very fact that both candidates were equally good.

Casting lots was done in different ways, but a common way of doing it was to put the necessary number of polished stones of different colour in a container, and to shake it until one stone fell out, determining the choice. Whatever we might think of the method, it certainly worked. St. Matthias proved to be such a good apostle that after spreading the Gospel in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey), Egypt and Ethiopia, he was so successful he ended up being martyred (probably stoned) for his efforts.

There are plenty of things we can get out of the account of the choosing of Matthias, but I like the thought that the dignity of apostleship seemed to hang by the thread of chance – and yet it wasn’t really chance, was it? God had His plan all worked out, and Peter (along with the others) knew that. They could have pushed their own human will and thoughts into the situation: (“Hey, that Joseph Barsabbas is a really nice guy. Let’s choose him!”). In fact, the very fact that Christ’s own choice for that particular seat in the College of Apostles didn’t work out – at least by human standards – shows that God is very much in control of every detail. I mean, would we have planned things that way? The betrayal by Judas that led to the sacrifice which has atoned for man’s sin wouldn’t have been at the top of my list for a good plan. Finding an apostolic replacement by shaking some stones in a container isn’t something I would have thought of.

It seems like we’re rarely prepared for the twists and turns which define God’s plan, and yet – that’s the way He works. Why are we surprised when things don’t follow the meticulous plan we’ve worked out in our own minds? After all, even our Lord Jesus Christ Himself prayed in Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not My Will, but Thine be done.” And isn’t it our universal experience that, in the end, God’s plan is always best? Quite so.

Author: Fr. Christopher Phillips

Fr. Christopher G. Phillips is the pastor of Our Lady of the Atonement Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, where he has served for the past twenty-eight years. He is the founding pastor of the first Anglican Use parish, erected in 1983 under the terms of the Pastoral Provision. Fr. Phillips was ordained as an Anglican for the Diocese of Bristol, England, in 1975. After serving as Curate for three years at St. Stephen Southmead, he returned to the United States and served in two Episcopal parishes in the Diocese of Rhode Island. In 1981 he left the Episcopal Church and moved with his family to Texas, where he was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in 1983. Fr. Phillips and his wife, JoAnn, have been married for forty years. They have five children, all grown and married, and three grandchildren.

1 thought on “The Casting of Lots”

  1. The men in my prayer group were discussing the selection of Matthias last night after praying Vespers, and it occurred to us that perhaps the story of Matthias was an echo of the many times in Scripture when God chooses the lesser man for a job (Jacob over Esau, David over his brothers, etc.). We hear about "Joseph, surnamed Barsabbas, also known as Justus" and, oh, yeah, Matthias. We don't get to see the resumes of these two candidates, but right off, Joseph seems more impressive. His alias seems to indicate that he is either very upright (Justus = "the Just One" or a tzaddik) or perhaps that he had significant business with the Roman world and so needed a Roman-sounding name to go by. Matthias is just Matthias. But the lot falls to him. As so often, it is the one more likely to be overlooked that the Lord chooses.

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