Last week part of our lectionary readings came from the Book of Sirach; this week we have the Book of Tobit. Two respected Jewish elders. Sirach offered words of wisdom to his son and grandson in his book. Tobit offers the story of a life that falls apart and God puts back together again.
Tobit describes himself in the first chapter of his book as a Jew from northern Israel taken to Nineveh in slavery by the Assyrians. He’s a very successful businessman, just what the Assyrians were looking for to create the world class empire they envisioned. Tobit became one of Assyria’s financial agents traveling their vast empire. There’s a relative in one place he visits, and Tobit entrusts him with some of his money, just in case.
Tobit is a religious Jew, generous to the poor, faithful to all his religious duties, intent on the restoration of Jerusalem. In Nineveh he was known for burying the dead, a dangerous act if the Assyrians wanted the dead body to rot away unburied in a public place.
That danger didn’t stop Tobit, our story says. During the Jewish feast of Pentecost he leaves his supper table, goes to the market, takes an exposed body and buries it that evening, then he washes and goes to sleep in an alleyway outside his house because of the heat. Something absurd happens: bird droppings fall into his eyes and blind him.
For 4 years he goes to doctors, who make his blindness worse. Not only does his blindness get worse, but he gets worse. Everything gets on his nerves. His wife has to go to work to support them. When she brings home a goat given to her as a gift, Tobit accuses her of stealing the goat. She has enough of him.
“I flushed with anger at her over this.” Tobit says, “So she retorted: ‘Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your righteous acts? Look! All that has happened to you.”
Tobit becomes so despondent that he wants to die. But everything will change, though he doesn’t see it till it does. His son Tobiah returns with a beautiful bride, he gets the money he gave to his relative and an angel cures his blindness.
Tobit offers two beautiful prayers at the end of his book, which are not in our lectionary but we pray them in the Liturgy of the Hours.
‘Blessed be God who lives forever
because his kingdom lasts for all ages.
for he scourges and then has mercy.
he casts down to the depths of the nether world
and he brings up from the great abyss…
Praise him, you Israelites, before the Gentiles,
for though he has scattered you among them, he has shown you his greatness even there….
In the land of my exile I praise him
And show his power and majesty to a sinful people.” (Tuesday morning, Week 1)
“Let all speak of his majesty, and sing his praises in Jerusalem.
O Jerusalem, holy city,
he scourged you for the works of your hands,
but will again pity the children of the righteous.”
(Friday morning Week 4)
In the land of our exile, we may fall apart physically, emotionally, spirituality, but God is still at work.
God will restore Jerusalem, the holy city, for he pities the children of the righteous.