February / March 2019 - Vol. 102

Jesus choosing Matthew, by Caravagggio
The Choosing of the Twelve
by Fulton J. Sheen


Our Lord’s great command was: “Follow Me!” By calling others to Himself, He introduced the idea that man should have charge over man. It was a prolongation of the principle of His Incarnation: He Who is God would teach and redeem and sanctify through the human nature which He had taken from Mary. But He would work also through other human natures, starting with those first twelve whom He called to be His followers. It was not to be the angels who would administer to men: the government of the Father would be placed in the hands of human beings. Such is the meaning of His apostolic call to the twelve.

One is struck at once by the gigantic aim He proposed for His followers, namely, the moral conquest of the whole world; they were to be the “light of the world,” the “salt of the earth,” and the “city that cannot be hid.” He bade rather insignificant men to take an almost cosmic view of their mission, for on them would He build His Kingdom. These chosen lights were to cast their rays over the rest of humanity, in all nations.

In his essay The Twelve Men, dealing with the British jury system, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “Whenever our civilization wants a library to be catalogued, or a solar system discovered, or any other trifle of this kind, it uses up its specialists. But when it wishes anything done which is really serious, it collects twelve of the ordinary men standing around. The same thing was done, if I remember right, by the Founder of Christianity.”

It is evident that from the beginning, Our Blessed Lord intended to prolong His teaching, and His reign and His very life “unto the consummation of the world” but in order to do this He had to call to Himself a body of men to whom He would communicate certain powers that He had brought with Him to earth. This body would not be a social body such as a club, united only for the sake of pleasure and convenience; nor would it be a political body, held together by common material interests; it would be truly spiritual, the cement of which would be charity and love and the possession of His Spirit. If the society or Mystical Body Our Lord wanted to found was to have continuity, it would need a head and members. If it was a vineyard, as He declared in one of His parables, it would need laborers; if it was a net, it would need fishermen; if it was a field, it would need sowers and reapers; if it was a herd, or a flock, it would need shepherds.
In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Luke 6:12-16
The night before the choice He spent praying on the mountainside that they who were in the heart of the Father would also be in His own. When morning broke, He came down to where His disciples were gathered and, man by man, called those whom He had chosen. Of Peter the most is known. Peter is mentioned 195 times; the rest of the Apostles only 130 times. The one mentioned next in frequency to Peter is John, to whom there are 29 references. Peter’s original name was Simon, but it was changed by Our Blessed Lord to Cephas. When he was brought to Our Blessed Lord,
Jesus looked at him, and said, "So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas" (which means Peter).
John 1:42
The word Cephas meant “rock”. We do not get the full flavor of it in English, because Peter, the proper name, is not the same as our word “rock.” The words were identical in the Aramaic which Our Blessed Lord spoke, just as they are in French, where the proper name Pierre is the same as pierre, or rock. In Scripture, whenever God changed the name of a man, it was to raise him to a higher dignity and role in the community to which he belonged. Our Lord might have been saying to Peter, “you are impulsive and fickle and unreliable, but one day all this will be changed; you will be called by a name that no one would dare give you now—Rock Man.” Whenever he is called “Simon” in the Gospels, it is a reminder of the Apostle’s uninspired and unregenerate humanity; for example, when he was sleeping in the garden, Our Blessed Lord addressed him:
Simon, are you asleep?
Mark 14:37
Peter had by nature great qualities of leadership. For example, after the Resurrection when he said, “I am going fishing,” the other Apostles followed suit. His moral courage was manifested when he left his business and his home for the Master; that same courage, expressed impetuously, made him smite off the ear of Malchus when the leaders came to arrest Our Lord. He was boastful too, for he swore that though others would betray the Master, he would not. He had a deep sense of sin, and he begged the Lord to depart from him because of his unworthiness. His very faults endear him. He was deeply attached to his Divine Master. When other disciples left, he maintained there was no one else to whom they could go. He had courage, for he left his wife and his business to follow Our Lord.

To the credit of all mothers-in-law, it must be said that Peter showed no regret when Our Lord cured her of a serious illness. He was impulsive to an extreme degree, guided more by feeling than by reason. He wanted to walk on the waters and, given the power, became frightened and screamed in fear—he a man of the sea. He was an emphatic man, swinging swords, cursing, protesting against the Savior washing his feet; though named head of the Church, he had none of the ambition of James and John. But through the power of his Divine Master this impetuous man, as fluid as water, was turned into the rock on which Christ built His Church.

The Divine Savior constantly linked Himself verbally with His Heavenly Father; but the only human being He ever united with Himself and spoke of Himself and that one as “we,” was Peter. From that day on, Peter and his successors have always used “we” to indicate the unity between the invisible Head of the Church and its visible head. But this same Peter, who is always tempting Our Lord from the Cross, proves to be a rock of fidelity, for later on in his life the constant theme of his letters was the Cross of Christ.
But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.
1 Peter 4:13
Andrew, the brother of Peter, is referred to eight times in the New Testament. After being called from his nets and his boats to be a “fisher of men” along with his brother Peter, Andrew is seen next on the occasion of the feeding of the five thousand, telling Our Lord that there was a boy present with five loaves and two fishes. Toward the end of the public ministry, Andrew is met with again when some Gentiles, probably Greeks, came to Philip asking to see Our Lord. Philip then consulted Andrew and they both came to the Lord. At the very first meeting of Andrew and Our Blessed Lord, Jesus asked him:
What do you seek?
                       John 1:38
Andrew had been a friend of John the Baptist. When he met Our Lord, to whom John the Baptist had pointed, he immediately went and told Peter that he had found the Messias. Andrew is always spoken of as Simon Peter’s brother. He was an “introducer” because he brought his brother Peter to Our Lord; he introduced the lad with the barley loaves and fishes to Our Lord; and finally with Philip, came to introduce the Greeks to Our Lord. When it is a question of dispensing some benefits of the Lord or bringing others to the Lord, Philip and Andrew are mentioned together. Andrew was rather silent, being overshadowed by his brother Peter, but apparently he was never jealous. There was room for envy when Peter, James, and John were selected on three occasions for intimacy with the Divine Master, but he accepted his humble place; sufficient it was to him to have found the Christ.

Like Peter and Andrew, James and John were brothers and fishermen. They worked together for their father Zebedee. Their mother Salome was apparently not lacking in ambition; for it was she who, one day, thinking that the Kingdom that Our Blessed Lord had come to establish would be without a Cross, asked that her two sons be picked to sit at the left and right side of Our Lord in His Kingdom. To her credit, however, it must be added that we find her again on Calvary, at the foot of the Cross. Our Blessed Lord gave her sons a nickname—Boanerges or “sons of thunder.” This happened when the Samaritans refused to receive Our Blessed Lord because He had set His Face towards Jerusalem and His death. The two Apostles, discovering this, manifested their intolerance to Our Lord: Lord, wouldst Thou have us bid fire come down from Heaven, And consume them? But He turned and rebuked them,
And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?" But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. As they were going along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head."
Luke 9:54–58
The two “sons of thunder” did not fail to drink deeply of the chalice of suffering. John was later plunged in boiling oil, which he survived only through a miracle. James was the first of all of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom for Christ. John described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” and to him was accorded the guardianship of the mother of Our Lord after the Crucifixion. John was known to the High Priest probably because of his cultural refinement which justified his name, which in the original Hebrew means “favored of God.” His Gospel revealed him truly as an eagle who soared to heaven to understand the mysteries of the Word. No one better understood the heart of Christ; no one penetrated more deeply into the significance of His words. He too was the only one of the Apostles to be found at the foot of Christ; he is the one who tells us that “Jesus wept,” and he gives the New Testament definition of God as “Love.” James his brother, who is called “the Greater” belonged, together with Peter and John, to that “special committee” which witnessed the Transfiguration, the raising of the daughter of Jairus from the dead, and the agony of Gethsemane.

The Apostle Philip came from Bethsaida and was a fellow-townsman of Andrew and Peter. Philip was the curious enquirer; and his enquiry was crowned by the joy of discovery when he found Christ.

Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see."
John 1:45-46
Philip declined all controversy with a man who was so prejudiced as to believe that a prophet could not come out of a despised village. Philip is not met again until the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, and again he was enquiring:
Two hundred silver pieces would not buy enough bread For them, even to give each a little. John 6:7
Philip made a last enquiry on the night of the Last Supper, when he asked Our Lord to show him the Father. Philip brought Bartholomew, or Nathanael as he was also called, to Our Blessed Lord. As soon as He saw him, Our Divine Savior read his soul and described him as follows:
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."
John 1:47,48
Then Nathanael answered Him:
Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man."
John 1:49-51
When Our Lord told him that He had seen him under a fig-tree, Bartholomew was willing immediately to make the affirmation that Christ was the Son of God. His first contact with Our Lord had already lighted the lamp of faith within him, but Our Lord quickly assured him that there would be greater experiences in store; in particular, the great vision which had come to Jacob would be realized in Him.

Our Lord said that Nathanael belonged to the true Israel. Israel was the name given to Jacob. He, however, was very shrewd, and full of guile. Nathanael is characterized as a true Israelite, or one without guile. A sudden transition from the plural to the singular happens when Our Lord says: “You will see heaven opening” Jacob had seen the heavens opened and angels ascending and descending on the ladder, bringing the things of man to God and the things of God to men. Jesus was now telling Nathanael that he would see even greater things. The implication was that He Himself would henceforth be the Mediator between heaven and earth, God and man; in Him, all the traffic between time and eternity would meet as at a crossroad.

This prophecy of Our Lord to Bartholomew shows that the Incarnation of the Son of God would be the basis of communion between man and God. Nathanael had called Him the “Son of God” Our Lord called Himself the “Son of Man”: “Son of God” because He is eternally Divine; “Son of Man” because He is related humbly to all humanity. This title, used in close relationship with another title that had been given to Our Lord, namely, the “King of Israel,” still carried with it a Messianic meaning; but it took it out of the limited context of one people and one race, into the sphere of universal humanity.

Of Matthew or Levi, the publican, there is a record of his vocation and how he responded to it. The great and imperishable glory of Matthew is his Gospel. Matthew was a publican under the government of Herod, a vassal of Rome.

A publican was one who sold out his own people and collected taxes for the invader, retaining for himself a fairly large percentage. Very understandably, because a publican was a kind of Quisling, he was held in contempt by his fellow men; yet he knew at the same time that he had the power and legal authority of the Roman government behind him. The particular place where we first meet Matthew is at the head of the lake, near Capharnaum where he was gathering in the taxes. His calling demanded that he should be a careful recorder of the accounts. His submission to the Savior was immediate.

The Gospel relates:
As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he rose and followed him.
Matthew 9:9
He who had been wealthy would now have nothing to look forward to but poverty and persecution; and yet, he accepted this condition at the first summons. “Come,” says the Savior to a despised man, and he follows immediately. His response was all the more remarkable because he had been immersed in a trade which attracted mostly the unscrupulous and the unethical. It was bad enough that the tribute of homage from Israel should be collected by a Roman, but for it to be collected by a Jew was to make him one of the most despised of men. And yet, this Quisling who had forfeited all love of country, and who had completely suffocated the virtue of patriotism in his lust for gain, ended by becoming one of the most patriotic of his own people. The Gospel which he wrote might be described as the gospel of patriotism. A hundred times in his Gospel, he goes back into the history of the past, quoting from Isaias, Jeremias, Micheas, David, Daniel and all the prophets; after piling them one upon the other in a great cumulative argument, he says to his people in effect: “This is the glory of Israel, this is our hope, we have begotten the Son of the Living God; we have given to the world the Messias.” His country, which had yesterday meant nothing at all to him, became in his Gospel of the highest importance. He was declaring himself a son of Israel, ready to lavish on her all his praise. As men love God, they will also love their country.

Thomas was the pessimist of the Apostles, and probably his pessimism had something to do with his skepticism. When Our Lord tried to console His Apostles, on the night of the Last Supper by assuring them that He would prepare the way for them in heaven, Thomas responded by saying that he wanted to believe but could not. Later on, when the news was brought to Our Lord that Lazarus was dead:
Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him."
John 11:16
Thomas was called Didymus, which is merely the Greek translation of a Hebrew name and means “twin” Thomas was a twin in another sense, for in him lived side-by-side the twins of unbelief and faith, each contending for mastery. There was faith, because he believed it was better to die with the Lord than to forsake Him; there was unbelief, for he could not help believing that death would be the end of whatever work the Lord had a mind to accomplish.

Chrysostom says of him that while he would hardly venture to go with Jesus as far as the neighboring town of Bethany, Thomas would travel without Him after Pentecost, to farthest India to implant the Faith; even to this day, the faithful in India still call themselves “St. Thomas Christians.”

Two of the Apostles were relatives of Our Lord, namely, James and Jude. They are called “brethren” of Our Lord, but in Aramaic and Hebrew this word often means cousins or distant relatives. We know that Mary had no other children but Jesus. The phrase “my dear brethren,” as used so often in the pulpit, does not imply that all the members of the congregation have the same mother. Scripture often uses “brethren” in the wide sense. For example, Lot is called the “brother” of Abraham, whereas he was actually his nephew; Laban is called the “brother” of Jacob, but he was his uncle. The sons of Oziel and Aaron, the sons of Cis and the daughters of Eleazar are called “brothers,” but they were cousins. So it is with the “brethren” of Our Lord. These two Apostles, James the Less and Jude, were probably the sons of Cleophas, who was married to Our Lady’s sister.

Jude had three names. Having the same name as Judas the traitor, he is always described negatively as “not the Iscariot.” The night of the Last Supper, he questioned Our Lord about the Holy Spirit, or how He would be invisible and yet manifest Himself after His Resurrection. There had always been lurking in the minds of many of the Apostles a desire to see some great flashing Messianic glory that would open blind eyes and capture every intelligence.
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, "Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?"
John 14:22
The answer of Our Lord to Jude was that when our responsive love melts into obedience, then God makes His dwelling within us. Later on, Jude, sometimes called Thaddeus, wrote an Epistle beginning with words which reflected the answer he received on Holy Thursday night:
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James, To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Jude 1:1-2
Another Apostle was James the Just, also called James the Less, to distinguish him from the son of Zebedee. We know he had a good mother for she was one of the women who stood at the foot of the Cross. Like his brother Jude he wrote an Epistle which was addressed to the twelve tribes of the dispersion, that is, to the Jewish Christians who were scattered throughout the Roman world. It began:
James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
James 1:1
James who like all the other Apostles failed to understand the Cross when Our Lord foretold it, afterward came like the others to make the Cross the condition of glory.
Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials... Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him.
James 1:2, 12
Simon the Zealot is one of the twelve Apostles about whom we know the least. His Aramaic name meaning “Zealot” suggests that he was a partisan to a sect which would use violence to overthrow the foreign yoke. This name had been given to him before his conversion. He belonged to a band of patriots who were so zealous for the overthrow of Roman rule that they revolted against Caesar. Perhaps the Lord chose him because of his wholehearted enthusiasm for a cause; but a Niagara of purification would be needed before he would understand the Kingdom in terms of a Cross instead of a sword. Imagine Simon the Zealot, an Apostle with Matthew the publican! One was an extreme nationalist, while the other was by profession virtually a traitor to his own people. And yet both were made one by Christ, and later on they would both be martyrs for His Kingdom. The twelfth Apostle was Judas, “the son of perdition,” who will be treated later.

The number twelve is symbolic. The Book of the Apocalypse speaks of the twelve foundations of the Church. There were twelve patriarchs in the Old Testament, and also twelve tribes in Israel; there were twelve spies who explored the promised land; there were twelve stones on the breast of the High Priest; when Judas failed, a twelfth Apostle had to be named. The Apostles are most often referred to in the Gospels as “the twelve,” that title being attributed to them thirty-two times. In choosing these twelve, it was evident that Our Lord was preparing them for a work after His Ascension; that the Kingdom He came to found was not only invisible but visible; not only Divine but human. But they had so much to learn before they could be the twelve gates of the Kingdom of God. Their first lesson would be the Beatitudes.

[This article is excerpted from Life in Christ, chapter 10, Copyright 1958 by Fulton Sheen, and first published in Great Britain 1959 for Peter Davies Ltd by The Windmill Press Ltd, Kingswood, Surrey.]

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was an American theologian and bishop, first in New York City and then in Rochester, New York. He became well-known for his preaching, especially on television and radio. He hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour for twenty years (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting a weekly program called, Life Is Worth Living. The show ran from 1951 until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. He wrote 73 books and numerous articles and columns. Mother Theresa of Calcutta always kept a copy of Sheen’s book, Life of Christ, with her wherever she traveled for daily reflection and meditation.

top illustration: The Calling of Matthew, painting by Caravaggio
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