According to Hasidic Jewish tradition, there are thirty-six Tzadikim Nistarim, or “anonymous righteous ones,” in the world at any given time. These humble saints, simply by going about their everyday work without any expectation of public notice, keep the world turning; if even one of them were missing, the tradition says, the world would come to an end.
Judas was not one of them. Nevertheless, after his death, it became necessary to find a replacement for him. This is how it was done:
[T]hey nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. —Acts 1:23-26
This passage comprises the sum total of our knowledge of Matthias the apostle.
It would be easy to conclude that Matthias was not notable—that he never made a splash in the world. It is tempting to dismiss him as a simple functionary, a placeholder without distinction or particular importance. But even though he is not anonymous, I think it better to regard him as a humble tzadik who, by his simple labors, helped keep the world spinning on its axis. And if he followed Jesus, lived hard, faced persecution, and ministered to the poor, the sick, and the needy in Word and sacrament, are there many who can claim to have done more?
Most of us, in fact, can aspire to nothing more glamorous than to do our duty in that sphere of life to which it has pleased God to call us. Even if there are only thirty-six without whom the pillars of the earth would come crashing down, there are untold millions without whose daily toil the lives of many would be diminished.
Charles Dickens knew this. In his classic story A Christmas Carol, he wrote that “any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness.” May that be truly said of us, and all of us.
Imagine you had the power to spot Tzadikim Nistarim; what do you suppose you would observe them doing? How would they conduct themselves? What would their business practice be? How would they treat others? Then imagine your special powers of observation were taken away, and you had only your ordinary abilities with which to identify “righteous ones.” What would you look for? What traits would all tzadikim share, and in what ways might they differ markedly from each other while still being “righteous”?
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