Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Tobit is not in the Protestant Bible; it is part of what is called the “apocrypha.” My Jerusalem Bible introduction to the books says they were “only recognized by the Church after a certain hesitancy in the patristic period” but they have been “read and quoted from early days and appear in the official canonical lists in the West from the time of the Roman Synod of 382 and, in the East, from 682” (601). All three “belong to the same type of literature”; they all deal with history and geography with a “good deal of freedom” (602). They are clearly NOT being used as “historical” texts themselves. For example, Tobit tells his story as if he could personally have lived at three very different times in Israel’s history. He tells of being a young man when the kingdom was divided at Solomon’s death in 922 BC and how he continued to travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings. Then he is part of the diaspora of the northern kingdom and is taken to Nineveh. In chapter 4 he is deported with the tribe of Naphtali in 734 BC and his son does not die until after the fall of Nineveh in 612 BC – so it “covers” about three hundred years of history. The original semitic text of the story is no long extant. A “few Hebrew and Aramaic Fragments of the book have been recently discovered near the Dead Sea” but the text Jerome used in putting the Latin Vulgate Bible together is no longer with us. “The Book of Tobit was written among the Jews of the Dispersion, possibly in Egypt, between the 4th and 5th centuries B.C.” (603).
Tobit 1 – Tobit introduces himself. He says he is the grandson of Deborah and a man from Israel in the north. He says “when I still was at home in the country of Israel, the whole tribe of Naphtali my ancestor broke away from the House of David and from Jerusalem” (1:4). But while most of the House of Naphtali “offered sacrifice to the calf that Jeroboam. . . had made at Dan. . . I was quite alone in making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, fulfilling the law that binds all Israel perpetually” (1:6).
Tobit is not just fulfilling the Law outwardly. He claims he has “walked in paths of truth and in good works all the days of my life” (1:3). In the days when his tribe was taken into exile to Nineveh, he says God made him prosper among the Assyrians as well. He was put in charge of buying goods and supplies for Shalmaneser (r.727-722 BC). “Until his death I used to travel to Media, where I transacted business on his behalf” (1:16). “I had often given alms to the brothers of my race; I gave my bread to the hungry and clothes to the naked” (1:17). On one of these trips to Media, transacting business for the emperor, he deposited “sacks of silver worth ten talents” with a man named Gabael.
Under the reign of Shalmaneser’s grandson, Sennacherib (r. 705-681 BC), many of Tobit’s countrymen from Israel were killed. When he saw them Tobit “stole their bodies to bury them; Sennacherib looked for them and could not find them” (1:18), soon Tobit was hunted, his property was seized and he was left with only his wife Anna and his son Tobias.
Forty days after this confiscation, however, Sennacherib’s own children killed him and fled. Another son, Esarhadden (r. 681-669 BC), took over and put Tobit’s nephew, Ahikar, in charge of administrative tasks. This opened the way for Tobit’s return to Nineveh.
Tobit 2 – Back at home, he prepares to celebrate Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) and sends Tobias out to find a poor compatriot to invite; but Tobias comes back with a report that one of their countrymen has been killed and lies in the street strangled. Tobit goes out and retrieves the body, prepares it in his home for burial and then goes about celebrating the meal. At sunset, he buries the body. People are amazed that he continues to do these things that have gotten him into trouble.
He sleeps outside one hot night and bird droppings fall onto his eyes, leaving a white film that eventually make him blind. Then it tells of an interchange with his wife, where he accuses her of lying to him and she says to him, “Where are your acts of charity?” This story resonates because here is a situation where Tobit, known for his acts of courage and charity in the community, fails to act with charity at home. He is a good man but he is blind to the need for a faithful spirit in his relations to his wife – at least temporarily.
Luke 18 – A parable about “their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (18:1). An unresponsive judge is petitioned by a widow who looks to him for justice. He is finally moved to do his job by her persistent nagging. How much more will God grant justice to those who cry to him. But will the Son of Man find people with faith when he comes?
Jesus addresses those who think they are better than others. Two men went up to the temple—one said “I thank you I am not like other people” (the bad people); the other prays “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (18:3). That man is justified. All “who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (18:14). What pleases God is not formal piety, especially when it leads to self-righteousness, but a spirit bowed by a sense of the great mercy of God and a sense of the great need we have of God’s love and forgiveness.
The disciples try to keep people from foisting children on him for his blessing. But he tells them not to stop them “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (18:16).
A “ruler” asks Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (18:18) Why do you call me good, Jesus asks. Only God is good. Then he goes through the usual commands and ends by saying, “sell all that you won and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow” (18:22). Unlike the Lucan doublet of this at 10:25, just before the parable of the good Samaritan, this one does go back to the form of Mark 10:17. Here, though, the man Jesus meets is a ruler, and he instructs the man not just to unburden himself of his possessions, but to sell them to give the money to the poor. “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (18:24) But it is not impossible with God’s help. Peter reminds Jesus of all they have given up to follow him, and he reassures them.
Jesus takes them aside and gives them the last warning of the suffering that he will have to endure when they get to Jerusalem. “But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34).
Near Jericho, they encounter a blind man begging by the side of the road (Bartimaeus in Mark). He cries after Jesus and calls him “Son of David.” Members of Jesus’ entourage tell him to be quiet, “but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (18:39) This is an example of the kind of persistence Jesus encourages in parable such as the one about the widow and the judge or the neighbor who refuses to get up when you call on him. Jesus does heal the blind man.