Tuesday of Week 9 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Tobit 2:9-14

In today’s reading, we find Tobit sleeping out in the open under the wall of the courtyard of his house. Because of the heat, his face was uncovered.

As he slept, he did not realise that there were sparrows nesting above him. Their fresh droppings fell into his unprotected eyes and caused a white cataract-like film to form on them.

In spite of all the efforts of doctors (and Tobit as a well-off court official could be sure of the best), the cataracts got worse and he ended up becoming totally blind. This situation lasted for four years and it is presumed that he must have lost his post at court.

An unspoken question here is why such a tragedy should happen to such a good man. Was it pure accident or was it, as in the case of Job, a time of testing for Tobit? This question underlies the whole book.

His family was deeply sympathetic and his nephew, Ahikar, who was the chancellor of the exchequer and who had been instrumental in getting permission for Tobit to return home to Niniveh (see 1:21-22), took care of his uncle for two years but then moved to Elymais, the Greek name for Elam, a district northeast of the head of the Persian Gulf.

In the meantime his wife supported them by doing weaving work and selling what she made. The humiliation of the once-wealthy public servant is complete. Perhaps there is especially in such a society, a resentment that he, a man of high station, should be reduced to being supported by his wife.

On one particular occasion, in addition to being paid for her work, her customers gave her a bonus of a young goat to be eaten. It was clearly an act of kindness to a woman who was trying to support herself and her husband.

When Tobit heard the bleating of the goat he wanted to know where it had come from. When his wife said it was a gift from a customer, he refused to believe her. He was convinced it must have been stolen (by his wife?) and insisted that it should be given back. “I became flushed with anger against her over this,” he confesses.

Understandably, she was not too pleased either. In very satirical language, she asks where his charity is now, where are his righteous deeds when dealing with his own wife. Is his charity really from the heart or is it just for show (does this remind us of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees about the way they prayed, fasted and gave alms)? Or is she sneeringly asking what good have all his praying and alms-giving done for him. Anna here plays a similar taunting role to the wife of Job.

Perhaps his wife had a point. It is not difficult for the virtuous to become hyper-virtuous. A cynic once said that, to the pure, all things are impure. Tobit was undoubtedly a good and very sincere person, but he may, in this case, have become a victim of his own high ideals and gone beyond the evidence and failed to see that his own nearest and dearest deserved the same charity as the outsider.

Certainly, this can be a real temptation for committed Christians. We sometimes speak of the ‘street angel and house devil’. We can also see it in people who go to extremes in defending morality (like abortion); Christians who form elitist groups and sit in judgment on everyone else, most of all their fellow-Christians.

Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.

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