One of my favorite scenes from musical theater comes from “Guys and Dolls.” It is set in some dark alley, or even in the bowels of New York sewers, where the gangsters go to play dice. And our lead, Sky Masterson is basically creating a complicated scam—where to win one bet (“getting a certain girl to go to Havana with him”) means he needs to win a huge bet against all the other gangsters so they will show up at a Salvation Army meeting. And this bet involves throwing dice. The music swells as Sky implores the heavens “Luck be a Lady tonight” and the guys he is betting gather round, saying, “Roll ‘em, roll ‘em, What’s the matter, Roll the Dice ” and then Sky throws the dice “Hah” and BLACKOUT.
Now it’s an exciting thing to watch on the stage, but it seems a little imprudent (if not actually unwise) to “bet” anything important on the roll of the dice. I won’t bore you with the specifics of probability—or the “science” of various schemes to game the system—I just think that we have been taught a healthy skepticism about leaving things “to chance.”
And yet, here in our reading for today, as we get ourselves ready for the story of Pentecost (which arrives next Sunday), the disciples are huddled in an upper room, afraid in the aftermath of the strange events that happened around Passover that year—the arrest, torture, execution, and resurrection of Jesus. They just don’t know what to do. But as they hang out, talking about things, lots of things they cannot control, they do hang their hats on something they can control—picking a replacement for the “missing” disciple, Judas.
It is not a coincidence that we are told Jesus had Twelve Disciples (I’m sure Jesus had many more, but we hear mostly about “the Twelve.”) Why? Because Twelve was one of those magical numbers in ancient times. There were 12 sons of Jacob—which then created the twelve tribes of Israel. There were also twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures. In fact, the number twelve appears 187 times in the Bible, both old and new testaments (classroom.synonym.com)--and is said to represent perfection of government or rule (because it is 3—representing divine x 4—representing the earthly). 12 continues to be important in our own world, with 12 months, 12 hours each in the am and pm. I invite you to Google 12 and disappear down the rabbit hole of this very interesting number.
Back to our story—the disciples, trying to figure out what they were doing, decided they needed to make their number “perfect” again—they needed to have another disciple to be part of the Twelve. Notice that they didn’t just throw lots then and there—they didn’t put names into a hat and draw at random. There were some prerequisites.
“One of the men” [and yes, it was a man they were looking for]”
“who have accompanied us” [someone who had “boots on the ground” experience]
“during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” [so someone who had been there from the beginning]
And they defined this as “beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” [an aside here, I’m not sure that ANY of the disciples would fit this bill—since we don’t hear about Peter, or Andrew, or James, or John, or any of the others being present at John’s baptismal services.—But if we think of this as from the beginning to the end, then it makes more sense]
Now what do you get when you put your name into contention as one of the twelve? Do you get a Saint’s day named after you (maybe?). Do you show up in the scriptures (yes, but they didn’t know that). What was the prize?
“becoming a witness with us to [Jesus’] resurrection.”
And they had two candidates—Joseph, called Barabbas—also known as Justus, and Matthias. Now if it had been a popularity contest, my guess is that the guy with the better name recognition, the one who had Jesus’ father’s name, and the name of the guy who was let go instead of Jesus, and a nickname like Justus, he would win against this guy we know very little about—just his name, Matthias. So they prayed about it. And then they cast lots—they rolled the dice!
This seems very foreign to us. And I don’t think that this story is meant to encourage us to go to Atlantic City, or our favorite gaming place. Casting lots was intended to be a way to involve God in the decision. It must be based on an ancient custom, since we hear of the sailors in the book of Jonah casting Urim and Thummin (two objects we know nothing about now). But we can understand how people might want a way of knowing what GOD would want us to do. If we had a reliable way ourselves, we would probably use it.
So what does this story have to say to us?
I do notice the importance of rituals, and rites, and traditions for the disciples as they are faced with a world that seems increasingly out their own control. The older I get, the more I see the wisdom of touchstones in our lives. I’ll share one my mother tried not to violate. That was “Talk with family, at least once a week. Choose a day, choose a time. Make it a habit.”
I remember when I would touch base with my parents on Sunday (that was the preferred day for Mom). But after my diagnosis of leukemia in 2011, that weekly call became a daily call. And that continued until her death. Although I talk with my Dad several times a week, it is always Mom’s voice that rings in my head “I haven’t heard from you in a while (meaning a few days).”
Twelve was an important tradition for the followers of Jesus (who were mostly Jewish at this point). At a time of trial, they wanted to make sure they held onto some of the most important traditions. If we are to do likewise, that will mean figuring out what our most important traditions are. And seeing how we can adapt them to our ever-changing life in our world.
Another things this story points to is, Whatever you do, don’t forget to include God in your decision-making. I know it feels weird to talk about God and “rolling the dice” in the same sentence, but I think that is exactly what the writer of Acts meant to do. Casting lots was the acceptable way to say that God was involved. I don’t know that we have something comparable to this. Why didn’t the act of casting lots make it to the present day? When did we stop thinking that God would tell us what to do in the rolling of the dice? Was that a good decision? Or was it that we stopped including God in our choices?
I think it is interesting to note that the disciples did all this very careful planning to make sure they had the “right” number of people to carry on the witness to Jesus, and in the blink of an eye, the Holy Spirit descended on EVERYONE gathered in the upper room, pushing them out into the streets to talk about Jesus in languages they didn’t even know.
So maybe this story should be told with a truckload of salt. Don’t think you can “control” HOW God’s word is going to be spread, or WHO is going to be God’s mouthpiece, or even WHEN it is going to happen.
Maybe rolling the dice is a cautionary tale. Reminding us to take comfort in the traditions of the past. Reminding us that we shouldn’t forget to involve God in our everyday lives. But also chiding us for thinking that we could ever understand or capture the love/energy/passion/breath/source of life that has been from the beginning, creating, and dreaming, and nudging, and blowing, in God’s own way, in God’s own time.
We are the ones watching so intently, saying “Roll ‘em, Roll ‘em, Roll the dice.”
And God says, “HAH!”
May we have ears to hear. Alleluia, Amen.