1 Then sad at
heart, I groaned and wept aloud. With sobs I began to pray:
2 ’You are righteous, Lord,
and all your deeds are just;
All your ways are mercy and fidelity;
you are judge of the world.'
matter how unhappy Tobit becomes with his lot, he doesn’t accuse God of screwing
up. He takes it on faith that God knows
what He is doing, even if Tobit doesn’t.
3 ‘And now, Lord, be mindful of
and look with favor upon me.
Do not punish me for my sins,
or for my inadvertent offenses,
or for those of my ancestors.’
we don’t know why we suffer, all too often we assume we’re being punished. But sometimes it is no more a punishment than
forcing a reluctant child to study a subject she doesn’t like yet needs to
(Other possibilities also exist. God might cause, for instance, a lesser suffering in order
to avert a greater suffering, such as letting an innocent child die rather than
see that child suffer a future so traumatic that no good could come of it.
And there is also the factor of human beings (and as we
shall see, demons) exerting their own will to do things that God did not want
done, but which God can nevertheless turn around to make good come of it. For instance, God never, ever wants to see
anyone raped, but if it happens God can turn the horror into compassion for
others, or a righteous anger to change how women are treated, or a realization
that one’s virtue does not reside in physical virginity but in purity of
heart. Increasingly we also see that
cancer comes primarily from human pollution, not an act of God at all. Yet when my friend Viola died of stomach
cancer, in collaboration with God, she spent her last days teaching her
community everything she knew, and turned the nightmare of prolonged dying into
In Tobit’s case, however, I think his blindness was
educational. The one thing missing from
Tobit’s generosity was insight into how humiliating it can be to need it. Most likely ignorance rather than sin made
him unaware, and God reached out to correct this. Those who have received charity, when they
prosper afterwards, know much more about tact and compassion when they give.
Catholics believe not only in salvation, but also
sanctification. We teach that once you
give yourself over to God, receiving salvation, you give God permission to work
with you, for the rest of your life, in improving you. As the Catholic inspirational writer, Matthew
Kelly, is fond of saying, “God wants you to be the best version of
yourself.” You don’t give yourself over
with the expectation of an easy, protected life from that moment on, but with a
great desire to endure whatever it takes to make you shine.
Notice I said “work with you”, not “work on
you.” We do not consider ourselves inanimate lumps
in God’s hands, molded with no more say in the matter than clay.
Catholics believe in collaborating with
God. We believe that God gave us
consciousness so as to become His partners in Creation and His
love. Every time we do more good works
(ideally after seeking God’s will in what He wants done) we believe
gives God more consent in shaping us into better people. We
become more open to what we call
“grace”—that is, the freely given, benign influence and inspiration of
God. We don’t believe that we save ourselves, but
we do believe that we cooperate in our sanctification, and that life is
better when you’re the kid cooperating with Mom in taking a bath than
kid kicking and screaming as Mom wrestles you into the tub.
“They sinned against you,
4 and disobeyed your commandments.
So you handed us over to plunder, captivity, and death,
to become an object lesson, a byword, and a reproach
in all the nations among whom you scattered us.”
shows the evolution of thought after Israel’s defeat, from the “We won the battle
because our God is stronger than yours” to “We can’t expect God to protect us
when we don’t follow Him.”
Is this punishment?
Or consequences? Let me tell you
a story from my life.
There was a time when I had a vision at a Charismatic service, of armies and
tanks and missiles, marching under a flag that had (as it turned out) not yet
been invented. Others all around me were
proclaiming ecstatically wonderful things about God’s great love for us,
beautiful visions not at all like mine, so I kept my mouth shut, wondering what
was wrong with me that they saw beauty and I saw battle.
As it turned out, the flag I saw would fly over the
Bosnian/Serbian/Albanian conflict that would give us the horrible term, “ethnic
cleansing”. And at that very gathering
were pilgrims on their way to Medjugorje, in what would soon become a war-zone,
where apparitions of the Virgin Mary kept appearing. And the media printed all manner of lovely
things that she had to say, or made much of a reference to the importance of chastity,
but did NOT report that a great deal of what she tried to tell us was pleading
for people not to reject or show unkindness to “those not of your
communion”. In the meantime, the
Catholic citizens of Medjurgorje were expelling all of the Albanian Muslims in
town to make room for all the pilgrims.
And Our Lady warned that great harm could come of these cruelties, and
that war could soon break out if people did not pray and repent. But they were so full of pride that they only
heard the parts that they wanted to.
My vision mattered.
And I didn’t have the guts to report it, just because it went against
the grain of what people wanted to hear.
I don’t know how many others might have gotten the same vision and also
didn’t report it, but none of us spoke up, and the rest is history. Maybe corroboration all over the world would
have shifted the emphasis.
My health crashed soon after. I could never get a break. Illness followed injury followed illness
followed injury without any space in between.
Finally I turned to a medicine-man for relief, one that would respect my
Christian need to invoke only Jesus. His
insight led him to inquire about any visions I might have neglected. When I answered him, very gently he told me,
“God isn’t punishing you. But He was
driving you someplace and you jumped out of the car in the middle of the
highway, and you got all messed up.” So
I recommitted myself to listening to the Holy Spirit of My Lord Jesus Christ,
and to following God’s guidance wherever it might lead. And my health improved.
God was driving Israel somewhere, but they jumped out of
5 “Yes, your many judgments are
in dealing with me as my sins,
and those of my ancestors, deserve.
For we have neither kept your commandments,
nor walked in fidelity before you.”
it also matters that we remember that nobody’s perfect. God doesn’t owe us a thing. We could deserve any misery at all, because
we cause misery. Eastern religions teach
this as the karma problem—we keep racking up bad karma, and can’t seem to stop
doing it. They have their own beliefs in
how to deal with it, and we Catholics have ours (our way is to submit our sins
to Jesus, who we believe paid for our karma with His blood—to admit that we
need help and to ask for it.) but the point is that in widely separated parts
of the world people have recognized the same problem.
I have often heard people claim that Christians “invented
sin”, but the concept predates us as far back as you can go. The ancient Greeks had furies to exact
terrible penalties, and Oedipus gouged out his own eyes to show his penance for
patricide and incest. The Aztecs and
Mayans believed that evildoers would go to a hell that consisted of eternal
boredom. African Oryshas have all manner
of inventive ways to smite evildoers.
Shamans all over the world try to determine who messed up where and when
to let in disease and misfortune.
Sin is a fact of being human. Nobody gets by without doing something wrong,
at some time. We all have different ways
of dealing with it. For Christians, it’s
the cross. For the Jews of Tobit’s time
it was sin-offerings at the Temple (or as some in Tobit’s time believed,
sin-offerings wherever seemed convenient or politically expedient.)
6 “So now, deal with me as you
command my life breath to be taken from me,
that I may depart from the face of the earth and become
It is better for me to die than to live,
because I have listened to undeserved reproaches,
and great is the grief within me.
“Lord, command that I be released from such anguish;
let me go to my everlasting abode;
Do not turn your face away from me, Lord.
For it is better for me to die
than to endure so much misery in life,
and to listen to such reproaches!”
sees the gift of a kid-goat for the family as a “reproach”. I’m sure the donors only wanted to help, but
Tobit receives it as though it said, “You can’t support your family, you
loser!” He’s right: he doesn’t deserve
that—but who is reproaching him?
Don’t we often do that?
We project onto others our arguments with ourselves. And in fact sometimes we will convince
ourselves that somebody else (let’s say Tweedle-Dee) is reproaching us with the
unfair words that we secretly tell ourselves in the middle of the night, and go
running to another friend (let’s say Tweedle-Dum) saying, “Tweedle-Dee thinks
these awful things about me!” just to get the relief of hearing Tweedle-Dum
say, “Well, Tweedle-Dee is a heartless idiot!
It’s not your fault!” But the relief
never lasts (because we haven’t confronted the accuser within) and before you
know it, we’re running to Tweedle-Dee, saying that “Tweedle-Dum thinks I’m an
idiot!” It’s the game of “Let’s you and
him fight”, and in my youth I used to play it, before I realized that I myself
dished out the undeserved reproaches. I
have seen many others play it since then, and must remind myself, “You see how
it’s done because you used to play the game.”
A different important point—Tobit hurts so bad that he
wants to die. Emotional pain can
kill. We underestimate it, and often do
injustice to those who suffer it. Even
when it comes from wrong thinking, as in this instance, we shouldn’t shrug off
another’s emotional pain as inconsequential, no more than we would shrug off
another person having a heart-attack even if their arteries clogged up on bad
[ignore any anchor that might appear here.]
7) On that very day, at Ecbatana in Media, it so
happened that Raguel’s daughter Sarah also had to listen to reproaches from one
of her father’s maids. 8) For she had
been given in marriage to seven husbands, but the wicked demon Asmodeus* kept
killing them off before they could have intercourse with her, as is prescribed
for wives. The maid said to her: “You are the one who kills your husbands!
Look! You have already been given in marriage to seven husbands, but you do not
bear the name of a single one of them. 9) Why do you beat
us? Because your husbands are dead? Go, join them! May we never see son or
daughter of yours!”
thing at a time, in order of when they come up rather than order of importance
(it’s easier that way.) First, we’re
back to third person again. There’s too
much going on that Tobit didn’t witness.
One could take this as evidence that it really is just a story, or one
could say that it cobbled together different accounts, take your pick.
Second, recall that Media is where Tobit’s money is.
Third, Raguel is a variation of Reuel (you know, one of
Tolkien’s middle names) which means “Friend of God”.
Fourth. Okay, who
is Asmodeus? The name means “Demon of
Wrath”. One translation of Tobit called
him a “king of demons” and some references call him a “king of nine hells”, so
he had some weight as a bad guy.
Medieval scholars regarded him as a demon of lust, although his behavior
in Tobit, killing bridegrooms before they can deflower the bride, seems to me
kind of a buzz-kill for the mood. Some
Jewish scholars say that he fell in love with Sarah and killed her human
husbands out of jealousy. In Jewish
legend, through the pseudoepigraphic “Testament of Solomon”, he is said to say,
"I am called Asmodeus among mortals, and my business is to plot against
the newly wedded, so that they may not know one another. And I sever them
utterly by many calamities; and I waste away the beauty of virgins and estrange
their hearts. . . . I transport men into fits of madness and desire when they
have wives of their own, so that they leave them and go off by night and day to
others that belong to other men; with the result that they commit sin and fall
into murderous deeds." Putting all
of this together, he seems to be the anti-marriage demon.
Why would marriage get its own specialized enemy? Because it’s such a powerful force for good,
two people committed for life to love each other, support each other, and watch
each other’s backs. Two people who will
stand by each other for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness
and in health. And two people who, if
they are so blest, create the safe haven for children to grow up in, cherished
and cared for and guided. Married men
live longer, and married women are less likely to suffer poverty. Married people are better for society, making
more responsible decisions lest the consequences of bad choices hurt the one
they love most in all the world.
about that maid. She is clearly out of
line. And yet is Sarah so innocent? I could dismiss her as a Mean-Girl if not for
that one line, “Why do you beat us?” WAS
Sarah taking her misery out on the maids?
Catholics have a concept called “scandal” even though the
gossip columns have hijacked the word to make it mean something more like
“titillatingly bad behavior”. What it
originally meant was “tempting others to sin”, whether by mistreatment,
seduction, bad example, or bad teaching.
The person who yields to temptation carries full responsibility for the
choice to yield, but the tempter also has sinned equally in causing the
temptation. The maid shouldn’t have said
those horrible things, but Sarah made her angry enough, with an injustice of
her own, to move her to lash out like that.
Nothing in Tobit condemns Sarah. And yet sometimes we see more in scripture
later on in time than was originally intended (St. Paul was a master hand at
that!) and most of Christianity has come to recognize this process as valid, that the
truths in scripture unfold slowly over time.
(You will hear some people insist that no, they never ever see anything there that wasn't there for all time, when
they often do it most of all! The entire
Christian perspective on the Old Testament pointing towards Jesus Christ is a
development that had not occurred to the original writers of the Torah, as any
non-Messianic Jew will agree.) Nowadays
we do understand that we don’t have a right to take our unhappiness out on
other people. Even if the maid messed up,
beating her was overkill.
Whatever the case, though, you can bet that the maid only
says to Sarah’s face what others are murmuring behind her back. It comes out too fully-formed to have just
now occurred to the maid. So in that
sense Sarah really does suffer undeserved rebuke.
10 That day Sarah was sad
at heart. She went in tears to an upstairs room in her father’s house and
wanted to hang herself. But she reconsidered, saying to herself: “No! May
people never reproach my father and say to him, ‘You had only one beloved
daughter, but she hanged herself because of her misfortune.’ And thus would I
bring my father laden with sorrow in his old age to Hades. It is far better for
me not to hang myself, but to beg the Lord that I might die, and no longer have
to listen to such reproaches in my lifetime.”
almost commits suicide, but at the last minute she realizes the impact that
this would have on her father who loves her.
Our lives don’t belong to ourselves, to discard when we feel weary of
them. If she were to die of natural
causes, her father would mourn, but not feel nearly the same anguish as knowing
that he had failed to ease his daughter’s suffering. He would always wonder what he could have
done differently. But if God took her,
he would not feel blamed. Sarah knows
what “undeserved reproach” feels like and wants to spare him that.
Interesting, that even the Aramaic and Hebrew versions use the word “Hades”
rather than “Sheol” (The Grave) Greek influence reaching far. This was one of the reasons for later Jews to
discard Tobit—the possibility of cultural contamination. Of course, we modern-day Christians can’t
throw stones in a glass house. We often
refer to “Hell” when Jesus said “Gehenna”.
Hell is Nordic, the underworld dwelling of Hel, the goddess of those
dead unworthy of Valhalla. Gehenna, as mentioned
before, was the municipal Jerusalem dump, used as metaphor for those who throw
This matters, because Hades and Nordic Hell are cosmological
places, whereas Sheol and Gehenna are states of being. The original Jewish understanding was the
more subtle. I forget whether it was
John Paul II or Benedict XVI who reminded Catholics that "Hell" was not a place
but a state of alienation from God, but I do remember all kinds of outrage
about it, as though the Pope had uttered a blasphemy.
One reason it matters is that thinking of “Hell” as
underground can hamper a Christian’s love for Creation, including the
incredible foundation of all nature, the beautiful living soil upon which we
walk, upon which Jesus walked, which absorbed the drops of His blood. When we lose the abstract nature of Hell we
Another important reason is that we can both trivialize
Gehenna and fail to recognize it when we see it. When we think of it as a place, we can
imagine hanging out with all kinds of interesting damned people and throwing an
eternal party whooping it up with all manner of “scandal” in the gossip-column
But if, instead, we think of it as alienation from the
Divine, we can recognize that living, breathing people walk around in that
state all the time, and suffer torment, and don’t know why exactly, what
they’re missing, what could end the misery.
And yes, Gehenna can be quite present right in the middle of a party, if
people keep trying to numb themselves and yet suffer anyway, laugh loudly with
others and yet feel terribly alone. But
at the same time Heaven can happen to someone else at the same party, someone
who feels the Divine, who genuinely loves those around them, who genuinely
celebrates and does not need to numb themselves to the wonder of being alive.
In Christianity as I, at least, understand it (and many would disagree with me) we are not
damned. We damn ourselves. Even when nobody rebukes us we rebuke
ourselves. Even when given gifts we feel
condemned. We lash out at others in our
pain. We hurl ourselves into Gehenna,
mistaking ourselves for garbage. And, I
believe, Jesus would do anything to save us from that, to awaken us to His
Getting back to Sarah, we see even more clearly how
unkind words can imperil a person’s life.
A maid’s backlash almost not only killed Sarah, but also nearly plunged
her father into the unspeakable torment of a suicide’s survivor. Many nowadays criticize the idea of including
emotional harm as a form of bullying, even though gangs of mean kids will
torment fellow children online with the OPENLY STATED purpose of
driving them to suicide, and call it a newfangled idea without any tradition
behind it, but even thousands of years ago the writer of Tobit recognized the
gravity of this sin against a fellow human being.
11 At that same
time, with hands outstretched toward the window, she implored favor:
“Blessed are you, merciful God!
Blessed be your holy and honorable name forever!
May all your works forever bless you.”
COMMENTARY: In one
possible interpretation of her position, Sarah is literally at the brink. This appears to be the window she would
have thrown herself out of with a noose
around her neck.
Another possible interpretation was that she was facing
Jerusalem, praying towards the Temple as a good exile should.
Notice how, like Tobit, she does not blame God for her
circumstances, but opens the prayer with worship. This is a good way to open prayer. Too often we cut to the chase and start in
right away with what we want.
In fact, this doesn’t even need to be an opening for
something else. We can pray worship all
by itself, and the more you do it, the better it feels, and the better life
goes. It’s perfectly all right, for
instance, when you see beauty, to think, “Wow, that’s fantastic, God! YOU’RE fantastic! What an artist You are!” The more we do this the more we tune in to
the wonder of Creation and hence the wonder of the Creator, and the more joy we
feel in everyday life.
(Not that incapacity to see the good things in life makes
you a sinner. I’ve had my share of
wrestling with clinical depression. You
don’t always choose whether or not you can see beauty and wonder and all the
rest. Sometimes, like Tobit, you go
blind, through no fault of your own. In
times like those I pray, “Thank you, Jesus, for all of the blessings that I
can’t perceive right now.” And in that way I remember that they still exist,
even as light still exists around the blind man.)
12 Now to you, Lord, I have turned
and have lifted up my eyes.
13 Bid me to depart from the
never again to listen to such reproaches.”
Simultaneously, Tobit and Sarah pray the same prayer! And they
have no idea that the other one even
exists or suffers as they do. We often
feel so lonely in our suffering, as though nobody else knows what we’re
through, but cries like ours rise up all over the world. We are
not alone. And often, as you will see, when we connect
with each other life gets better.
14 “You know, Master, that I am
of any defilement with a man.
15 I have never sullied my own
or my father’s name in the land of my captivity.
“I am my father’s only daughter,
and he has no other child to be his heir,
Nor does he have a kinsman or close relative
whose wife I should wait to become.
Seven husbands of mine have already died.
Why then should I live any longer?
But if it does not please you, Lord, to take my life,
look favorably upon me and have pity on me,
that I may never again listen to such reproaches!”
clarifies, first, that even though she has been deprived of husbands, she has
never had sex outside of marriage, either.
The price of this, though, is that her family has no heir, legitimate or
otherwise, and every effort to get her a legitimate heir has failed, so she
believes her life to be without purpose (sad that in those days women felt
useless if they couldn’t have children, but that’s the world that Sarah had to
deal with, and it wasn’t just a Jewish thing, it was that way all over.)
And yet, though she comes even closer to despair than
Tobit, she also arrives at a hope that doesn’t occur to him—that if God prefers
not to kill her, perhaps He could fix what’s wrong with her life. Sometimes those who go deeper into despair
can feel hope more poignantly. For bad
things can also have their Shadow—we cannot go too far in any direction without
a strong tug towards the opposite. Sarah
harnesses this inclination and blows upon the spark to bring it to full fire as
a sudden blaze of hope. And, as you will
see, not in vain.
16 At that very
time, the prayer of both of them was heard in the glorious presence of God..
COMMENTARY: It doesn’t mean that they didn’t pray before
this, or that God didn’t hear, but that He did instantly hear now. The timing had to be right, the conditions
had to be right, only God knows the exact right moment to act.
So Raphael was sent to heal them both: to remove the white scales from Tobit’s
eyes, so that he might again see with his own eyes God’s light; and to give
Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, as a wife to Tobiah, the son of Tobit, and to
rid her of the wicked demon Asmodeus. For it fell to Tobiah’s lot to claim her
before any others who might wish to marry her.
At that very moment Tobit turned
from the courtyard to his house, and Raguel’s daughter Sarah came down from the
COMMENTARY: Notice that God has no intention of giving
Tobit what he asked for, and also ignores Sarah’s Plan A—yet He DOES answer
their prayers. All too often we think of
ourselves as God’s Smarter Advisors, and think of our prayers as instructions—and
then get mad at God when He doesn’t obey!
But God had a much better plan than Tobit and Sarah could come up with.
We also see that while demons do
what they’re going to do with intent to oppose God, He can make use of even
their violence. For Tobit was the right
husband for Sarah, and the others were mistakes. It is my personal belief that had all parties
been not only striving to follow all the rules correctly, but actually
listening to God for additional instructions as well, the right match might
have happened right off the bat. (And
Tobit would have followed a hunch to lie down in a different part of the
courtyard, and woke up the next day just fine, wondering what that was all
about and whether he was being silly for choosing one corner over another.) I’m not saying that they sinned, but it’s
hard for us confused, soul-damaged mortals to truly listen and to discern when
God speaks to us. I think He speaks to
us all the time. And when we miss the
message, God will use anything, even disaster, to help us get back on the right
track. Even the malice of His enemy.