Saturday of Week 9 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Tobit 12:1, 5-15, 20

We finish today our readings from the book of Tobit. A central character has been the shadowy figure of Raphael who was in the background of much that has been happening. The characters in the story had no idea that Raphael was an angel. They saw in him a helpful guiding companion for Tobiah on his journey to Media. At the end, it is normal in such epiphanies for the divine being to reveal its identity and then suddenly disappear.

The reading begins with “When the wedding feast was over”. There had already been a wedding feast in the bride’s home but now Tobiah’s family also had to have a celebration. At the end of the meal Tobit suggests to his son, who has returned home laden with gifts, that it is time to show his appreciation to his travel companion by giving him “more than the figure agreed on”. So Tobiah offers Raphael half of all that he had brought back with him. The help that the stranger had given them had far exceeded their expectations. Their generous offering is another example of the book’s attitude to the use of money – it is to be invested in people, not selfishly hoarded.

Raphael, of course, does not need the money and could not have much use for it! Instead, he gives some parting advice to father and son, and also reveals something of himself to Tobit and his son (there is no mention of contact between the angel and the women throughout the story).

He urges them first to give thanks to God for all that they have received – Tobit for his sight, Tobiah for a lovely wife, Sarah for healing from her curse. One way for them to express their thanks is to proclaim to others the great works that God has done for them.

It is right to keep the secret of a king, yet right to reveal and publish the works of God.

This piece of advice is particularly relevant to Tobit, who had served as a courtier in the palace of the king and where a high level of confidentiality would have been expected of him. But, when it comes to the King who is our God, then we are expected to share with others everything we know and have experienced with him.

Then follows a number of pieces of advice for good living:

  • Do what is good and no evil will befall you
  • Prayer with fasting and sharing one’s goods with the poor while behaving well is better than amassing great wealth and behaving badly. “Almsgiving saves from death and purges every kind of sin.” (Think of Jesus’ words, “As often as you do it to the least of my brothers you do it to me” and St Paul’s, “Charity, love for others, covers a multitude of sins.”) And, of course, it was because of Tobit’s generosity with the poor, that he is rewarded with the restoration of his sight and the gift of a beautiful daughter-in-law, who herself was liberated from a diabolical curse.
  • Those who give alms have their fill of days; those who commit sin and do evil, bring harm on themselves.

    Then, on the principle cited above that God our King has no secrets, Raphael reveals that it was he who was interceding with God when Tobiah and Sarah prayed on their wedding night, and when Tobit did not hesitate to leave his dinner table to bury a fellow-Jew found lying murdered on the street, and when Sarah was liberated from the curse that killed her husbands.

    He then identifies himself. He is Raphael, an angel, a messenger of God, one of seven “who stand ever ready to enter the presence of the glory of God”. In fact, we only know three angels’ names from the Bible: Gabriel, Michael, and Raphael. The apocrypha fill up the list of the Seven in their own extravagant way. Raphael appears only in this book (and hence will not be found in Hebrew or Protestant Bibles); Gabriel is in the Book of Daniel and in Luke’s gospel at the Annunciation; Michael also appears in the Book of Daniel and in the Book of Revelation.

    It is not recorded in today’s reading but, when Raphael revealed his true identity, the two men fell prostrate on the ground in fear and awe of this divine messenger. He tells them to get up.

    In a final admonition, Raphael says,

    Bless the Lord on earth and gives thanks to God.

    He then takes his leave with the words,

    I am about to return to him who sent me from above.

    John will put similar words into the mouth of Jesus as he speaks with his disciples during the Last Supper (John 16:5). The evangelist shares with this book the pattern of a descending and ascending saviour figure. It reminds one, too, of the vision of Jacob and the ladder leading to heaven, with angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth. Jesus also will say to Nicodemus:

    I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

    In the whole of this story – and it is a story, not a factual or historical account of real events – we are given material to reflect on for our own lives. We too can reflect on how God comes into our lives in many ways, in times of joy and times of sorrow.

    God was not absent when Tobit went blind; it was not God who actually caused his blindness, but it provided a testing time for his faith and trust in God. Similarly for Sarah and her father Raguel. The terrible curse that resulted in the death of seven husbands on her wedding night certainly was a test of faith in God’s goodness. But it was rewarded by her happy marriage to Tobiah.

    There are some similarities with the story of Job (also not a historical account). It is easy to love God and praise him when things are going well. When disaster strikes, that is the real test of our fidelity and genuineness of our commitment.

    Lastly, we can ask ourselves who are the angels, the messengers that God keeps sending into our lives? Who are the people who have rescued us, who have redirected our steps when we were going astray, when we were losing faith in God’s care of us? Who brought us comfort in times of desolation? And, equally important, how often have I been an angel bringing God’s love and peace into the lives others?

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