I’ve been reading Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul and this week’s Gospel melds well with his ideas about wealth. Both denying what we lack and what we have can harm our souls. Living anxiously in regards to wealth and poverty is what Jesus is warning his disciples against. Moore says that we need to consider the wealth we have--our abilities, our talents, our passions and money. If we truly know what wealth we carry with us, we can determine what work we should be doing. If our work feeds us and cares for the world or our community, it is a good thing.
The disciples were being sent out as itinerant preachers and couldn’t carry large amounts of anything with them. Jesus didn’t want them worrying about how they would take care of themselves; he wanted them to trust that God would care for them. Matthew knew Jesus’ words to the disciples but he was writing for the people in his church: settled, middle class people who went to work and earned a living. These are people with whom we can identify. Matthew is telling them not to live in anxiety. He and Jesus knew how destructive it could be for someone to constantly be anxious about what was going to happen. Matthew is using Jesus’ words to comfort them and to help them recognize that they and we might worry for no reason. We can’t change much about what will happen. We can make plans but, we can also make ourselves ill by being anxious about how it will turn out.
I’d like to share a story with you. I watched a movie last week called Ushpizin, an Israeli film. The main characters are Moshe and Mali, a conservative Jewish couple. They live in modern-day Jerusalem in a conservative Jewish neighborhood. Moshe is a rabbi who studies and teaches at the local Yeshiva and he is paid according to the time he spends there. Moshe also has a past. He was a thief and Mali knows this.
Moshe and Mali have been married for five years and the deep desires of their hearts are to love and praise God and to have a son. They consider that all they have is a gift from God. They love one another deeply--just as they love God and they cannot understand why a child has not been forthcoming.
The film opens just before Sukkot--the feast of the tabernacles, and Moshe has no money to build a shelter so they can spend the week-long holiday in their own booth. The local rabbis are inspecting the four species they will sell to devout Jews so they can pray during the feast. (This scene made me think of the moneychangers Jesus drove from the Temple because they were evaluating how much they could get for the best specimens.) The four species are myrtle sprigs, citrons, closed fronds from the date palm, and willow branches and the rabbis determined which were good enough to use for the holiday.
Moshe is concerned because he must go home and tell Mali he didn’t get paid that month. They owe their landlord and likely all the food merchants. He goes home and they discuss their plight over small portions of cooked cabbage and wonder what will happen to them. Moshe and Mali are good people and while they wonder why God has not provided for them when they have dedicated their lives to loving him; they feel they must keep praying and somehow it will all work out.
So, Moshe is sent off to pray and Mali stays at home and she prays, too. Each of them prays passionately to God--offering praise and thanksgiving for what they have and asking God to give them what they need.
As they pray, the holiday is approaching. The head rabbi is approached by his charity agent. The agent tells him he has no more time but he has $1000 left and what should he do with it? The rabbi says, “Pick a number.” The agent says 35, and they count down the list of synagogue members who are in need. 35th on the list is Moshe. The rabbi sends the agent off to give Moshe the $1000. Just as Mali is finished praying, there is a knock at the door and she is afraid to answer. She has already avoided the landlord who came earlier, and she just won’t answer the door or even look to see who it is. An envelope slides under the door. Imagine her astonishment to find it contains $1000! While she waits for Moshe to arrive home, she is singing and praising God.
On Moshe’s way home, he is met by Ben Baruch who tells him the good news that there is a booth available because someone has bought a new one. So, he goes off with Ben to start assembling it. God is good--they have a booth for the holiday! Eventually, he goes to Mali and discovers that God is really, really good! They have $1000 in an envelope marked with a note that it is for Moshe. They are so excited! They have just enough time to go to the stores before they close and gather what they need for Sukkot. They can have a real feast, they can pay all their bills, they can afford the rabbi-approved four species for their prayers. And, they have a booth to celebrate in.
All is prepared. Their booth looks very homey--there are cots in place, decorations on the walls, the food is cooking and wonder of wonders, God sends them guests.
As I said, Moshe was a thief in his former life and one of his old friends shows up at the door of their booth. Guests at Sukkot are a real honor--God really loves you if you get guests for the festival. This old friend and his companion are supposed to be in prison but, instead they are on the lam from the authorities and here they are on Moshe’s doorstep. Moshe and Mali are gracious hosts; they feed the men, they let them stay in their booth, and they tell the story of Sukkot to them--of the Israelis time in the wilderness. They share their love of God with these two men who are extremely secular Jews.
Moshe and Mali are conflicted. They know these men are not good people and really would like to send them away--but, they think of Abraham and Sarah entertaining strangers and they just can’t do it. Moshe suspects they are on the lam. Mali worries that Moshe will revert to his old ways. It is a prime example of doing good while being concerned about whether the recipient is worthy or not. These men were not worthy; they did not respect Moshe and Mali and the life they chose to lead and yet, they meant them no harm.
The story has some twists and turns. Moshe lies to the men to get them to leave and repents when they return to check up on him. The guests decide to barbecue outdoors with loud, secular music and get the neighbors riled up. The police are called and Moshe has Mali hide the men under the beds in their flat.
Mali decides to leave--that Moshe is not for her. Moshe is devastated and angry yet, when he confronts the guests, he walks away to get control of himself and he forgives them because they didn’t know the turmoil they were causing. Moshe recognizes that he, too, does not deserve what God has given him. His old friend tells him he thought Moshe’s conversion was fake and he realizes now he is on the up and up and his friend respects the change he has made in his life.
Mali returns as Moshe dismantles the booth--the guests are gone, the holiday is over. Mali tells Moshe, “I want to name him Nahman.” While she was away she discovered she was pregnant, their heart’s desire, to have a child together. In the final scene, Nahman is 8 days old and the head rabbi is circumcising him. Mali watches in sheer joy from the women’s balcony in the synagogue and as the men dance and celebrate with Moshe, their Sukkot guests arrive bearing gifts and ready to join them.
I like this story--it illustrates exactly how we ask God for what we need and yet, we get into states of worry. Moshe and Mali did a good job of continuing to pull that worry back even when confronted by these two thieves for guests; they welcomed them with open arms. I kept thinking that they must look wealthy and well-off to these two men, that the men would steal their money or want to live with them forever or take more advantage of them. I think Moshe and Mali were worried along these lines, too. But, they had received a wonderful gift from God and how could they not share it? How could they worry about losing their wealth when they had the obligation to tell these men how much God loved them? And, this is what Jesus and Matthew were trying to tell their followers--don’t worry, just keep loving God and do the work you have been given to do. All things come from Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.