Wednesday of Week 9 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Tobit 3:1-11, 16-17

Today’s reading follows immediately on yesterday’s where we saw the good Tobit, now blind, being taunted by his wife as being something of a pious hypocrite. We are given pictures of two people in deep distress, people who feel that life is no longer worth living.

The first of these is Tobit. In response to his wife’s indignant outburst, which he seems to have felt was not altogether wide of the mark and feeling sorry for himself over his blindness, Tobit breaks into a long lament.

He acknowledges God’s truth and justice.

All your ways are mercy and truth; you judge the world.

Like Job, in spite of his distress, he never utters a word of complaint against God himself.

He pleads with God to look compassionately on him and not to punish him for his wrongdoings, including those he is not aware of. Though Tobit is a good, observant Jew, he is not without sin. At the same time, he cannot, in his position of exile, make the necessary sacrifices to atone for them.

He pleads forgiveness too for the sins of those ancestors who disobeyed the Lord’s commandments. It is no wonder that his people have suffered so much from being plundered, sent into exile and death, and become a byword of mockery among the nations. To some extent he sees himself as liable for those sins too and they are partly the source of his present troubles.

For we have sinned against you and broken your commandments; and you have given us over to be plundered, to captivity and death, to be the talk, the laughing-stock and scorn of all the nations among you have dispersed us.

Finally, he puts himself fully into God’s hands and asks that his life on earth be terminated.

Deliver me from this affliction. Let me go away to my everlasting home…

His words are similar to those of Jonah who wanted to die because God would not destroy the pagan people of Niniveh. Moses, too, prayed for death (Num 11:15) as did Elijah and Job. The “everlasting home” was Sheol, the dismal abode of the dead from which there was no return.

It is better to die than still to live in the face of trouble that knows no pity. I am weary of hearing myself traduced.

He seeks to become again the dust from which he originally came, and to find a release from the undeserved insults of his wife. God, however, has other plans as we shall see.

At this point we move, with no apparent reason, to a completely different setting. Here we are introduced to Sarah, the daughter of Raguel, who lived in Media at Ecbatana.

She had become the object of taunts from one of her maidservants as she had been married to no less than seven different men in succession. But each one of them had died before they had had an opportunity to have intercourse together as man and wife (see a similar yet very different situation in today’s Gospel reading). This curse was understood to be the work of Asmodeus, “the worst of demons”.

The meaning of the name Asmodeus is uncertain but it probably means ‘the destroyer’. The name appears in the Testament of Solomon (where he also is the enemy of the marriage act) and in post-biblical Judaism; some think Asmodeus may be related to Aesma, a demon of the Parsees in northern India. The demon love, a common motif in ancient folklore, also appears in 1 Enoch 6-11. Here, the demon who cannot satisfy his lust kills his rival each time before the marriage is consummated, thus leaving Sarah without the possibility of offspring and making her the object of great reproach.

Even a maidservant could accuse Sarah of being the cause of her husbands’ deaths. She was a disgrace and an embarrassment to every other woman, whose primary obligation was to provide sons for her husband.

Deeply distressed, Sarah went to her father’s room with the intention of committing suicide by hanging herself. Unfair reproach leads Sarah, like Tobit, to wish and pray for death.

But then, she had second thoughts. If she hanged herself in her father’s room, the blame could fall on him. In addition, how could she cause such grief to an elderly father who loved his only daughter so much? Her death could hasten his own death.

Her rejection of suicide indicates a concern for her family which is lacking in Tobit.

Instead of hanging herself, she wanted God to allow her to die in some other way and not have to bear any more terrible insults from those around her. Like Tobit, she then recites a prayer to God which is not included in our reading.

Once again, God has his own plans, and the two previously unconnected victims are brought together in the unexpected way described in the last verse of the reading.

There are a number of issues for us to reflect on. In a time when assisted suicide and euthanasia are widely discussed, we need to sympathise with and try to understand the feelings of those for whom the burden of living has become too great. This is especially the case in our own times when people tend to live much longer (or are kept living much longer) and become the victims of debilitating old age. We also have the tragic situation where so many young people can see no future for themselves and, feeling they have no one to turn to, put an end to their lives.

In both the cases of today’s reading, we see Tobit, an older man, and Sarah, the young woman, begging God to let them leave this life. Yet, in very unexpected ways, help comes. Let us make sure that people we know in such a situation can find the help they need. For the terminally ill, it is to be able to die with dignity and peace and surrounded by love and care. For the young, it is to know that there are always alternatives, and that there are people who can understand, who will not judge, and who want to help.

We also see in the story the secondary role of the woman as the means by which her husband can produce an heir, preferably male. This is an attitude which has not completely disappeared even in so-called enlightened societies, but which needs to be challenged.

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