Choosing leaders (Luke 6:12–16)

Luke, like Matthew and Mark, tells of Jesus’s selecting twelve of his disciples for a special roles in service-leadership. John doesn’t bother with the appointment of this dozen. (See Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19.)

Luke tells it a little differently than Matthew and Mark. Like Mark, he tells us that Jesus went up a mountain to do this. Given the stories of Moses’s trips up the mountain, readers of either Mark or Luke should probably take the hint that Jesus wants to enter more closely into the presence of God in order to return with words that will be of abiding authority among the people of God. But only Luke bothers to say explicitly that Jesus prayed. Using a word that appears only here in the New Testament, tells us that Jesus prayed about it: he was διανυκτερεύων in his prayer, pulling an all-nighter.

(Fun fact: the only appearance of dianyktereuō in the Greek version of the Old Testament is where Job’s wife, after the death of all their children, tells Job to curse God and die. She harangues Job at greater length in the Greek version than in the Hebrew, including this jab: “And you? You sit in the refuse of worms as you spend the night in the open air.” Don’t bother looking for that in Job 2 in your English Bible, which translates the Hebrew text, even though most of the New Testament writers were reading the Greek text of the Old Testament.)

Now, if you read the story of the Transfiguration carefully, you may conclude that this was another episode of all-night prayer. And of course there’s the agonizing prayer at night in Gethsemane. But as far as I can recall or find at the moment, this statement in Luke 6:12 is the only time we are told, in so many words, that Jesus spent all night praying.

So that’s one difference in Luke: he tells us that Jesus prayed all night before choosing the twelve.

Another is that he tells us that in choosing the twelve, Jesus was appointing apostles. Neither Mark nor Matthew uses this word here (or much at all, actually). They both tells us specifically what these twelve were meant to do: in Matthew, they received authority to cast out unclean spirits and to heal every kind of disease (interestingly, no mention of authorization to teach!); in Mark, he appoints twelve to be with him so that he could send them out (the verb is apostellō) to proclaim (preach, kēryssō). Luke, subsitutes the word apostles for these spelled-out descriptions of what they were to do.

Anyway, by the time the gospels are written down and circulated, it would have been clear to most of their intended readers that these twelve men were meant to serve special roles in the ongoing work of Jesus, and that these roles entailed representing Jesus, and thereby representing God, by continuing and extending Jesus’s two-fold ministry of doing good works (like healing sick people) and proclaiming the reign of God (and in general saying what followers of Jesus believe). Their deeds and their proclamation (especially in Luke’s vision, further elaborated in Acts) would establish the direction of the practice and teaching of the church. So they were servants, but they were also under-founders, and they were leaders.

In short, then, here is what strikes me. First: the only time we are told that Jesus spends all night praying is when he is about to select leaders. Second: even though he prayed all night before selecting them, most of them turned out to be lackluster performers, and one of them was an outright traitor who sold him out to people intent on killing him.

(I say most of them were lackluster performers because in the rest of the New Testament we are told of significant words and deeds only of Peter, James, and John, and even those, especially with Peter, are mixed. Later church tradition tells us of all kinds of things that the others did, but it’s hard not to see a lot of that as the imaginative filling in of blanks. The gospel writers even had trouble keeping their names straight, as you can see if you compare the several lists of the twelve in the New Testament.)

What to make of this? The challenging point: if even Jesus, whom we might think of as having considerably better native instincts and insight than ourselves, found it necessary to spend all night praying before appointing leaders, how much time should you and I spend praying (inviting God to change our minds and allowing ample time for that to happen) when we are going to have a hand in selecting leaders either in church or in society?

And the both sobering and ironically comforting point: if even Jesus managed to select several duds and one outright traitor, maybe we don’t have to beat ourselves up too badly for not batting 1000 when we make our choices. But if we don’t climb the mountain and do the praying, we had better worry that our percentages will end up a lot worse than his. And looking around . . . yeah . . . maybe we should be beating ourselves up a bit after all. And some of us more than others.

By the way, regarding the traitor: if you search the archives of ancient Christianity in its various expressions, you’ll find groups that adamantly insisted that Judas Iscariot was the stable genius who really understood the deep things that others missed and did everything right. That’s another interesting little point to ponder.

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