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  • Writer's pictureFr. Gustavo

"Summer Saints XI - The Son of Tolmai"

Hands of a saintly man
Detail of Hands - St Bartholomew, by Jusepe de Ribera, 1634

Perhaps most people would consider being ignored very upsetting. Not ignored in the sense of being politely sidelined but rather, in the sense that one has become invisible. People can look through one, and nothing obscures their vision.

Being unrecognized, unheard, and ignored is a painful experience and sometimes it may push people into unexpected actions and reactions. “When we are in an embarrassing situation, invisibility seems like a superpower. As the psychiatrist Donald Winnicott put it, ‘It is a joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.’”[1]

In the Scripture we learn that even before humans uttered the first word or stepped into the brave new creation, God took notice of His creatures. God’s very first action toward our primeval parents was to admire them, the human beings He created. And yes, God said that “It was good.”

Although the world pushes values based on wealth, looks, and a very shallow understanding of success, God, on the other hand, values us for what we are and whose we are.

So, it is always good to recall our value under God’s eyes and as our Baptismal Vows asks us, “to defend the dignity of all human beings.” In other words, we are called to see our fellow human beings for whom they are and whose they are, and not for what they wear, what music they listen, or how they worship or even who they worship.

For even if some would hate to recognize it, we all are God’s handicraft. And so, we should honor God’s imprint in humanity. But I am straying…

Now, I believe, there is even something worse than being ignored – “criminally” ignored or purposely neglected, if you will.

And it is recognizing a person nor for his own worth and dignity but by factors entirely out of his or her control. Or dismiss a person for factors that are entirely out of their control.

Enter our saint of the day – “The Son of Tolmai.” Or as it became known in the gospels, Bartholomew, St. Barts.

Perhaps you may have seen the 2004’s movie, “The Passion.” Unique about all movies about Jesus, all the actors speak not in English but in Old Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Jewish Palestinian Aramaic.

Because the movie was subtitled, I believe that very few people paid attention to the spoken words, and just followed the English subtitles. Had anyone been listening to the dialogue it may have been possible to realize that there was no such one a Barabbas but a Bar Abbas, that is, the son of Abbas. As in today’s saint, Bar Tolmai, the son of Tolmai.

Interestingly we don’t know a lot about our saint. However, one thing to note is that in the gospels we learn more about Barabbas than about Bartholomew, our kind of self-effacing saint.

What are the facts? Bartholomew was one of the Twelve Apostles, mentioned sixth in the three Gospel lists (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14), and seventh in the list of Acts (1:13). That’s it.

While there was a Peter, and Andrew, John and Mary, and Salome and so many others with a proper name, yet Bartholomew was just that, the Son of Tolmai. Even more, there is no other person by such a name in the New Testament, and beyond being named as an apostle, we learn nothing more about him.

Now, there are some theories that propose that the Nathaniel that appears only in John’s gospel is Bartholomew’s proper name. But there is absolutely no connection in the gospels or in the early history of the church.

Eventually – and I guess because we all find difficult to accept that such an unknown character may have been called by Jesus, stories began to grow about “Bartholomew.”

The Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that, “No mention of St. Bartholomew occurs before [the church historian] Eusebius, who mentions that [a certain] Pantaenus, while evangelizing India, was told that the Apostle had preached there before him and had given to his converts the Gospel of St. Matthew written in Hebrew, which was still treasured by the Church.

“‘India’ was a name covering a very wide area, including even Arabia. Other traditions represent St. Bartholomew as preaching in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, and on the shores of the Black Sea.

“The manner of [Bartholomew’s] death, said to have occurred at Albanopolis in Armenia, is equally uncertain; according to some, he was beheaded, according to others, skinned alive and crucified.”

Let me suggest that some of the stories about Bartholomew arise from a very popular understanding. Stories which are based in the way that “normal” people and societies act.

The more important the main character is, the more gatekeepers there are and more hoops to be jumped. But Jesus, however, was not “normal”. (It should be the other way around, but you know what I mean. It is the notion that the North pole is up, and South is down.)

So, would Jesus surround himself of unknown quantities, would He? But as we know, one of the reasons that Jesus was criticized was that He surrounded himself with the wrong crowd (Luke 7:34).

As the gospels tells us, the apostles were commissioned to preach and heal and to accompanied by power to cast out unclean spirits and to heal disease, taking “nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— and to put on sandals but not to wear two tunics (…) and to preach that all should repent.” (Mark 6:7-13).

So, if they were to be commissioned in such a way, they had to be “someone.” That’s the way the wisdom of the world operates, isn’t it?

And yet, it is easy to forget that among the “someones” was Judas who not only put his hand in the till, but eventually betrayed Jesus. And Thomas. And Saul of Tarsus, who “persecuted without mercy the church of God and did his best to destroy it,” (Galatians 1:13-14).

And yes, as St Paul would eventually recognize it, “I am the first of sinners.” And so are we.

But God is not picky. As our second lesson tells us, God’s mercy will reach all of us, Jews and non-Jews, insiders and outsiders even when we are caught in the tangled web of sin which we weave for ourselves.

Yes, God’s merciful wing extend wide out so that we all can be covered under His loving embrace. In God’s view, no one is too far away that cannot be embraced back home.

Indeed, God is “The God with the Big Tent.” A God who called the people building the Temple not to be stingy, “Enlarge the house – God said – build an addition. Spread out the House and spare no expense!” (Isaiah 54:2). “For my house shall be a House of Prayer for all the nations!” (Isaiah 56:7).

So, a good question to ask is, then, why Bartholomew came to be among the Twelve? Let me answer in the prophetic words of our first lesson,

Those who join themselves to the Lord,

to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,

and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,

and hold fast my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain,

and make them joyful in my house of prayer.

Perhaps, just perhaps, wouldn’t it be possible that one of the reasons we don’t know much about Bartholomew was that he, rather than being called like Peter or Matthew was just one of those who having seen what was going on decided to hang out with Jesus and chose to become one of his followers?

As you know, it wouldn’t be the first time that “outsiders” decided to come closer to the Lord. The lady in today’s Gospel is just one of them.

Moved by her mother’s love and trusting to find grace with the “God of the Big Tent” the lady pressed her case, and her faith was rewarded. Indeed, here as everywhere, Jesus kept expanding the tent of His love.

Let me propose naming Bartholomew, “The Son of Tolmai” as one of the saints of Christian unity. As far as we know, he joined, he loved, and he followed, the essential marks of conversion. No altar call, no leaving nets or desks behind, he just followed.

I love what Pastor Dale Chamberlain has to say about an open-hearted view faith against the trend of a narrow-mindedness. He writes that, “the primary focus of Jesus’ ministry wasn’t on who he was keeping out so much as it was who he was inviting in.

“Years later, Jesus’ brother James put it this way: ‘We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God’ (Acts 15:19).

“Centuries after that, Christian theologians would put it this way: ‘In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity.’

“The goal has always been a big tent. As in, the biggest tent you can think of—every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. All of them with a million different views on a million different things, but all of them made one, just as Jesus and the Father are one.”

As today’s Psalm invites us, together with peoples, nations, and even the earth, let us join in praising God from whom all blessings flow, and let us receive with open arms all and any who would like to join, to love, and to follow Jesus, the Author of our Salvation, and the Head of Church. Amen.

Fr. Gustavo


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