A Jewish Family in 3rdcent. BCE, Reflections on verses from the Book of Tobit
Year 1, Week 9, Monday Glenroy 1977
Tobit 1.1; 2.1-8
What is good grows. What is good wishes to excel itself. But the only way to excel is to exceed. Therefore, good seeks out evil to overcome it, be changed through it and through God’s excellence.
The story of Tobit is a case in point. Tobit is admirable as father, a Jew, a householder. His generosity and his knowledge of the Law are exemplary.
Yet he is struck down, being blinded and impoverished, – all to a purpose: “So that his faith, as Raphael tells him, may be tested.”
I do not of myself seek out difficulties and trials. I may even flee them, as did Tobit. But the inherent nature of things is that the good man will meet with adversity, as the rock creates spray.
For God’s will it is that the good can become itself by conflict with evil. The Spirit of God in a man will drive him to choose situations of risk, so that his inner nature may become realised. After all, God creates order out of chaos and transforms evil into good. Note how that evil is overcome, not by being eliminated but by being shown to be good. Good transforms evil into good. Good, obviously so, becomes good in a way unimagined by using evil to the good.
Thus, we see the man of Spirit, Jesus, taking the risk, provoking the result, so that through the cross he learns obedience and redeems all mankind. And again, the evil of Adam’s fault now becomes ‘felix culpa‘, a happy fault.
For evil is overcome by being transformed into good by the power of the Holy Spirit who uses all things to profit, by raising the Man above all evil, beyond all we know as good.
Jesus is beyond good and evil, with God who is above good and evil as we know it, the Ruler of all, who takes us through good and evil to light inaccessible.
ditto East Doncaster, 1989
The dating of the Book of Tobit is unsure. Its particular value is the presentation of Jewish family life during the obscure period between the retum from exile and the revolt of the Maccabees.
Its particular religious value is the statement that the hand of God is at work in the ordinary family, in its trials and happiness. It is the movement of focus away from the grand scenario of Exodus and Exile to the domestic scene. It is the history of salvation seen in the family.
This first excerpt from the Book of Tobit shows the character of the old man: he is just in the way Job was just or Noah was just. He buries the dead even at the risk of his own life. He celebrates the feasts of the Torah. He is “wise, merciful and just”.
Year 1, Week 9, Tuesday East Doncaster, 1989
It is in the context of Tobit’s goodness and justice that the blinding takes on its dramatic quality. The wife puts the problem well: what is the point of all his goodness if it leads only to his blindness. That is the problem treated in the Book of Job.
Year 1, Week 9, Wednesday Glenroy 1977
Tobit 3:1-11, 16-17
Tobit has been blinded and reduced to poverty. He will not, however, curse God, as his wife suggests. No, his opening words are: ‘You are just O Lord’ and he praises God. In his wretchedness he prays for the deliverance of death.
Sarah’s shame is beyond all bounds. When a woman’s duty was above all to care for her husband, no less than seven have died; when a woman’s glory was to bear children, she has never even been freed of her virginity. Though despairing, she will not do harm to her father by hanging herself as her wretchedness suggests. She prays for the deliverance of death.
Separated by thousands of miles, separated by age and unconnected in their problems, Tobit and Sarah pray for a like solution and will be delivered in reference to each other. Their prayer is answered: Raphael is sent to bring remedy to them both. He is unexpected means of answering their disconnected problems.
God will always answer prayer. His answer is always unexpected. That is why it seems to us, sometimes, that our prayers are not heard. For God’s thoughts are above our thoughts, his love greater than our love, his power beyond ours. When we open ourselves to his effectiveness, the answer cannot but be unexpected, perhaps uncomprehend, unseen, unknown.
As Raphael accompanies the young Tobias and advises him, who could know that God was already composing his solution. And as he answers our prayer, it is in a process: how can we understand the meaning of the process, until the end. Only at the end of the story does Raphael explain all. Only at the end of history will we know that God has answered the prayer of every person who turned to Him, but unexpectedly, beyond expectation. For he is God.
ditto East Doncaster, 1989
Tobit realises the point of his wife’s comment, which leads him to the same mind as Job: it is better to die. He asks for release.
The scene shifts to Sarah who is distressed because of the all-true comments of her maid. The jibes have shown her the despair of her situation. She in her own way is just: she refuses to harm her father’s name. She is the innocent victim – like Job – of the demon. She asks for release.
When the person is brought to the end of their tether, the testing is complete.
The angel Raphael is sent to their help.
Year 1, Week 9, Thursday Glenroy 1977
Tobit 6:11, 7:1,9-14, 8:4-8
Young Tobias shows the ardour of youth and a good conscience. For he has scarcely arrived in Ecbatana before he is washed, seated and wedded. He is not put off by the hesitation of Raguel or the fate of the previous seven husbands, but insists on claiming Sarah as his wife.
As he prays, it is with nature and faith; there are no plaguing doubts or religious fearfulness. It is a return to Edenic innocence and primitive justice.
For that reason, his prayer is heard and the demon Asmodeus is confounded. Tobias and Sarah – strengthened by their concordance with nature, by unity with their people, through obedience to the Law of Moses, by the ardour of youthful bodies in their prime, by confidence in a compassionate God – enjoy a humanism which is divine. The truth they enjoy and live cannot but be successful over Asmodeus, for evil gains entry only when there is fault. The restoration of all things means the irrelevance and impotence of Asmodeus.
All this is achieved through the ministration of Raphael; the work of a messenger, an adviser, an angel, has restored them to innocence.
It is the re-integration of the human race, its return to the original innocence. It is the innocence of nature which precedes any historical deformation. It is the conquest of sin and evil.
The balanced person and the balanced society that conform to nature, that give place to religion and dwell in the presence of God: all this overcomes evil and fulfils the purposes of creation.
Prayer is successful when justice is restored.
ditto East Doncaster, 1989
Along with the scenes of sadness, the Book of Tobit gives this delightful scene of the marriage of Tobias and Sarah. Comedy is not absent: entering the city, acquaintance and marriage occur all in the course of one day; during the wedding feast the father of the bride gives the most surprising speech, warning the bridegroom that seven others have died in his daughters’ arms.
And within this humour, which is delightfully Jewish, there is a touch of romance and affection between the two young people. There is a sense that this wedding will bring happiness and solution to Tobit’s blindness and to the precarious state of the Jewish people in their dispersion.
Year 1, Week 9, Friday East Doncaster, 1989
This scene is most touching. Typical of the anxious mother, Anna is waiting at the door of the house, watching for her son’s retum. Young Tobias comes with blessing for his aged parents. He brings his young wife to enrich the home and to ensure the succession. He brings medicine to heal the blindness of bis father. Tobit exclaims: “I can see, my son, the light of my eyes”.
This is a touching moment. It is perhaps a moment we have all experienced. Homecoming is one of the most powerful experiences we know.
To live in family, to know the delight of finding each other again; the reconciliation, the homecoming, the solution of problems that seem to overwhelm: family life is one of the greatest gifts of God to mankind.
The happiness of the family makes life worth living. It is a taste of heaven itself. For that reason, the Jewish and Christian traditions have always placed great emphasis on the family. The family is where the greatest sorrows are known and also the greatest pleasures. It is, for most of us, where salvation is found.
Year 1, Week 9, Saturday East Doncaster, 1989
Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20.
The events of the Book of Tobit are now explained. What might have seemed to Tobit and his family as just a mixture of bad and good luck is now revealed to be the work of God and of the angel Raphael. “It is right to reveal the works of God”.
The kindness and mercy of Tobit were noted. This meant his testing, as it did of Job. The severity of the testing brought Tobit to the limits of prayer which was indeed heard though seemingly ignored. Raphael both tests and heals, brings to death and back. God is at work in the events of life, through the ministry of his angel. There is the hidden realm of grace at work in the lives of ordinary people.
We need to understand our lives. It is the joyful task of old age to understand the hand of God in our lives, the work of the angels.
This late Jewish work shows how God acts in the lives of ordinary people. Now that the Jewish people, as a nation, is no longer functioning, the family has become the place where God is at work, bringing salvation.