Commentary on Luke 6:12-19
We move on now to a different phase in Luke’s story and some very crucial sayings of Jesus.
Jesus, we are told, went up into the mountains to pray and spent the whole night there in prayer to God. Some might wonder what Jesus would have to pray about. Such a question may reveal a limited concept of what prayer is. It is not just a question of asking for things. It is even less a question of fulfilling a religious duty, “saying our prayers”.
Prayer is ultimately making contact with God, the beginning and end of all things. It makes a lot of sense that Jesus would have wanted to be in intimate contact with his Father and to have spent long periods with him. One of Jesus’ main concerns was that he do the will of his Father. Prayer was one way of making sure that there was completely harmony with that will.
Luke’s gospel shows Jesus at prayer more than any of the others. He also shows Jesus praying before all the important stages in his public life. As soon as this period of prayer was over, he called together his disciples and from them he chose twelve as apostles.
We know that among those who came to hear Jesus was a group, comprising both men and women, who regularly followed him and were committed to his teachings. Elsewhere we know of 72 such disciples who were sent out on a mission to do what Jesus was doing. After the ascension, we are told of 120 believers waiting for the coming of the Spirit. It is from these that Jesus chooses 12 to be Apostles, with a special mandate to continue his mission for the Kingdom. Although the order of names varies in the different gospels, the list is always headed by Peter while Judas is placed last.
We can sometimes be rather casual in our use of the terms ‘disciples’ and ‘apostles’ but they have very distinct meanings. The word ‘disciple’ is applied to any person who commits himself to be a follower of Jesus. The word ‘disciple’ comes from a word which means ‘to learn’. There is a passive element present, in the sense of the disciple sitting at the feet of the guru and learning from him. Jesus’ disciples regularly called him ‘Rabbi’ or teacher. ‘Apostle’ however has a much more active meaning. It refers to a person who goes out as an emissary, delegated to pass on information or commands or instructions to others on behalf of some authority.
In the Gospel, the word ‘apostle’ first applies to the twelve people who were especially chosen by Jesus to hand on his message. They would, after the departure of Jesus, become the foundation stones of the new community. In them would be invested the integrity of the original message and it would be up to them to interpret its acceptable developments. They were the beginnings of what we call today the “magisterium”, the teaching body of the Church responsible for the maintenance of the integrity of the Gospel message.
In this, as in all the lists of the Apostles, the first person listed is Simon, whose name is now changed to Peter. (In Matthew, the change is made at Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah, Matt 16:18.) There are variations of the Apostles’ names in all the lists. Bartholomew here seems to be the same as Nathanael in John (cf. 1:45) and is associated with Philip. Matthew seems to correspond to Levi (cf. Mark 2:13ff.). James, son of Alphaeus, is probably the same as James the younger, not the brother of John (Mark 15:40). The other Simon is called a Zealot. This could be either to describe his religious zeal or indicate his membership in the party of the Zealots, a Jewish revolutionary group violently opposed to Roman rule. Judas, the son of James is another name for Thaddaeus (Matt 10:3; Mark 3:18). Also known as Jude to distinguish him from the other Judas, who always appears last in the lists. ‘Iscariot’ may mean that he comes from Kerioth. The town Kerioth Hezron was about 19 km south of Hebron and appears in the Old Testament (Joshua 15:25; Jeremiah 48:24).
We know, of course, that one of the chosen failed utterly and betrayed his Master. He was replaced by Matthias. Later, too, Paul – who never saw the pre-resurrection Jesus – would be called to be an Apostle. And the term would also be applied to a few others in the New Testament, e.g. Barnabas, a missionary colleague of Paul.
Secondly, however, the word ‘apostle’ applies to every baptised Christian. All of us, one way or another, are called to pass on the Gospel message so that others can hear and respond. There are many ways we can do this. One thing, though, is clear; it is not enough for us to be simply disciples, passive followers.
Immediately following the call of the Twelve comes what is really Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount. Significantly, for him it is going to take place in a plain, down on the ground in the midst of all the people. So his version is sometimes known as the “Sermon on the Plain”. It somehow indicates the humility of Jesus and his closeness to the people while Matthew uses the more biblical concept of a mountain as the place where God reveals himself.
Jesus is surrounded by all his disciples, his newly chosen apostles, and a huge crowd from Judea and Jerusalem, from the sea coast of Tyre and Sidon, including both Jews and non-Jews. They all came to listen to Jesus and to be healed. And they were all eager to touch him physically because a certain power went out from Jesus and brought healing to all.
Let us then hear today the call of Jesus, first to be his disciples, totally committed to accepting and assimilating his message; second, to accepting the responsibility to spread the Gospel actively through the way we live our lives, through the way we speak, and through the relationships we establish with people; thirdly, let us reach out and touch Jesus so that we may experience his healing wherever we need it.