Welcome to Tobit. Some of us have been eating, sleeping, and breathing Tobit for weeks now, or months, as we prepared for our Evening Bible & Arts Camp, which ran its course this past week. Some of us have dipped into it a little – coming to a Bible study or an art workshop, or just browsing the book on your own time. Some of us have still barely heard the name. Which is fine. Most Christians have never heard of Tobit. But today, and next Sunday, we’re going to fill you in. I can almost guarantee you that St. Dunstan’s will soon be the most Tobit-literate congregation in the Episcopal Church, maybe in the whole United States.
Tobit is found in a part of the Bible called the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a set of books written later than most of the Old Testament – within the last few hundred years before the birth of Christ – and written in Greek, rather than Hebrew. Protestant churches by and large treat the Apocrypha as a secondary kind of Scripture. It’s not included in most Protestant Bibles, including the ones we have around here. These books are more likely to be found in Roman Catholic Bibles, and study Bibles often include them in a separate section between the Old and New Testaments – so that if your church teaches that they’re not really Scripture, you can easily skip them! We Anglicans have treated them as a sort of secondary Scripture, of historical meaning, not excluded from our study of the Bible but not included on equal terms, either. The Revised Common Lectionary, the calendar of Sunday Scripture readings that we share with many other churches, includes a few Apocryphal texts – but nothing from Tobit, though there is a Tobit passage listed in the readings appropriate for weddings – Phil and I used it in ours, actually!
I first encountered the Book of Tobit, not in church, but in a religious studies course at Indiana University, during my senior year of college. The course focused on Last Words in ancient texts. The wisdom and moral guidance that people pass on when they’re anticipating death. The Book of Tobit was an obvious choice because Tobit gives a Last Words speech to his son Tobias TWICE – once early in the book, when Tobit has prayed to God for relief from his suffering and anticipates that God will take him soon; and once at the end of the book, at the actual end of his life.
Reading the Book of Tobit for class, I discovered a rollicking, engaging story. It was a lot of fun to read and talk about. I remembered it. And fifteen-plus years later, as a priest, rector of a parish, helping run summer programs for kids, Tobit floated back into my mind. I thought, this would be a great book to explore with kids. It has two young protagonists, no older than their early teens. It has a demon, and an angel in disguise. It has fish guts and bird poop. What more could you ask for?
Now, for those of you who haven’t read it yet – well, you should; there’s a link to an online version on our website, and the people who have read it this summer have told me, It’s actually really interesting and easy to read! But you can’t read it right this second, so with a little help, I’ll give you a very basic outline of the story.
Tobit was a righteous man, a Jew, who lived in the northern kingdom of Israel, in the chaotic years just before the Assyrian conquest. He did all the things he was supposed to do, as a faithful Jew, even though most of the people around him didn’t care about following God anymore. He had a wife, Anna, and a son, Tobias, and he was reasonably well-off, wealthy enough to make generous gifts to the Temple. Then the Assyrians conquered Israel, and the family lost everything except each other. They were dragged off to live in exile in the city of Nineveh. It was a terrible time. Many Jews living there died of starvation or were killed by Assyrian masters. And Tobit would bury their bodies, even though he was forbidden from doing so by the ruler.
One night the family managed to scrape together an especially nice meal, and Tobit said to his son Tobias, Go out and find one of of our people in the street, somebody who’s hungry and in need, and call them in to share this meal with us. Tobias went out and instead of finding a guest, he found another dead body in the street. He rushed home and said, “‘Look, father, one of our own people has been murdered and thrown into the market-place, and now he lies there strangled.’ Tobit leapt up and rushed to recover the body. He wept for the misfortune of his people. And after sunset, he snuck out to bury this nameless victim. When he came back, he lay down to sleep in the courtyard of his home, so as not to disturb his family. And while he was sleeping, bird droppings fell in his eyes from sparrows nesting nearby, and caused him to become blind.
So Tobit became blind. And this misfortune on top of all the others was more than he could bear. He became bitter and angry. Finally on one especially awful day, he yelled at his wife Anna, who was working so hard to care for the family. And when Tobit realized how he was acting, he fell on his knees and asked God to set him free from his suffering, saying, “Command, O Lord, that I be released from this distress; release me to go to the eternal home… For it is better for me to die than to see so much distress in my life.” (3:6)
Now, at that very same moment, somebody else was also praying to God and asking to be set free from suffering. In another city, a young woman named Srah was in terrible trouble. She had been married seven times, but she was persecuted by a demon, who killed every bridegroom on their wedding night. People were fearful and suspicious of her, and there seemed to be no hope. Sarah was just as miserable as Tobit. She had even thought about killing herself, but she knew how terrible that would be for her parents. So instead, she asked God to set her free from her hopeless situation and the cruel words of others. She prayed, “Lord, I turn my face to you, and raise my eyes towards you. Command that I be released from the earth and not listen to such reproaches any more.”
And God heard these prayers, Tobit’s prayer and Sarah’s prayer, and God decided it was time to sort things out. Tobit expected to die, because he had prayed for death. So he sent his son Tobias on a journey. Tobit had a cousin in another city, far away, who was keeping some money for Tobit. Tobias would retrieve the money, and it would help him and Anna to survive once Tobit was gone. But the journey was long, and Tobias was still young; so he needed a companion. Almost as soon as he looked for a companion, he found this man named Azariah (so he said), who knew the way, and even knew Tobit’s cousin, and was eager to help out Tobias. Azariah was actually the angel Raphael in disguise, sent by God!
So Tobias and Raphael the angel in disguise set out. Along the way they stop to rest beside a river. Tobias went to wash his feet, and a giant fish jumped out and tried to eat his foot! They managed to catch the fish, and Raphael told Tobias to gut the fish and keep its heart, liver, and gall, which could be useful to drive away demons and to cure blindness.
So they go on their way again, with the fish guts. And Raphael tells Tobias about this young woman, Sarah. He says, She is sensible, brave, and very beautiful. (In that order.) And she is a distant cousin to Tobias, which in those days was the kind of person you were supposed to marry. Tobias says, I’ve heard of her; don’t all her husbands die? And Raphael says, Don’t you worry about that. Remember the magical powers of fish guts. We’ll be staying at their house tonight. I think she would be a perfect wife for you.
So they come to Sarah’s house. Sarah’s parents are delighted to meet them! The young people, Tobias and Sarah, like each other at once, and the families know each other, so just like that, Tobias and Sarah are married. They have a wonderful banquet, and then they go off to sleep.
Now, this is when the demon usually shows up! But Tobias burns the fish guts on the incense burner, and the smell drives the demon away, and Raphael chases the demon all the way to Egypt and binds it in chains, never to bother Sarah again. Tobias and Sarah pray for God to bless their life together, protect them, and allow them to grow old together.
Meanwhile, what Sarah’s father Raguel is digging a grave outside, just in case he has to quietly dispose of Tobias’ body! But when he peeks in and sees that Tobias is alive, he hurries off to fill in the grave again! [This is the scene we created in our photo project; take a look and notice all the details.]
Then there are two weeks of feasting and celebration, because Sarah is finally free, and she and Tobias are so happy together. The cousin with the money hands it over – we’d almost forgotten that, right? So everything has worked out… except that Tobit is still blind, and Anna, Tobias’ mother, is CONVINCED that her son is dead, because he’s been away for so long. Finally Tobias tells his father-in-law, I must go home! My parents will be so worried! So Tobias and Sarah and Raphael, and the dog, head home to Nineveh. There’s a very happy reunion. Tobit and Anna are delighted to meet Sarah. Tobias uses the fish guts to cure his father’s blindness!
And then in the midst of the rejoicing, Tobit says, Now, we mustn’t forget your traveling companion, this fellow Azariah. He’s been a great help to you; we must pay him from the money you got, and thank him. And then we get the great reveal: Raphael says, “I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who stands ready before the throne of God.” Raphael tells them, It’s God who is behind all of this, the transformation of your misfortunes into blessings. Thank and bless God always, and proclaim what God has done for you.” And he flies away, and is gone.
It’s a darn good story. That’s why I wanted to work with it. But what we have discovered, the Camp team and Tom McAlpine, who’s been helping us study it and will preach next Sunday, what we’ve discovered is that there’s more here than just a rollicking tale. There’s some real depth, some real meaning. Some surprising and powerful intersections with our lives, and our times.
There are actually many sermons possible based on the book of Tobit, many ways to bring its themes into dialogue with our lives. We were pretty far along in planning our camp, creating the the script for drama and developing art projects, when it dawned on me: Oh, these kinds of things usually have, you know, themes or morals or values that we are teaching the children. Maybe I should come up with some of those!… To my relief, it turned out to be quite easy to pull out some meaningful themes from each chapter of the story: faithfulness, prayer, resourcefulness, courage, gratitude.
Turns out, Tobit is actually a story intended for moral teaching. It’s a work of historical fiction – and has been understood as such since early on – with strong spiritual and religious themes. In some ways the book of Tobit – written more or less as a morally-instructive novel – speaks across the millennia more easily than other Biblical books, whose meaning is more tethered to their time and place. What Tobit can say to us, mean for us, is not all that different from what it said and meant for its first audience, Jews trying to maintain hope and faithfulness in exile or under colonial rule. It encourages people to sustain hope, mercy, and righteousness in difficult times, when bad people are in power. More on that theme next week, I believe.
And it encourages people to trust that God is working in our lives, even when we can’t see it. Even when it seems like everything is terrible, around us, or inside us. There are books of the Bible in which God is very visible as an actor – stepping in to save or destroy, speaking through prophets or miracles or a mighty voice on a mountaintop. There are books of the Bible in which God is entirely offstage – in which the action in the story is all in the lives of people shaped by God and by faith.
Tobit falls somewhere in between. The narrator only names God as a character in the story in one brief passage – when Tobit and Sarah’s prayers reach God, and God tells Raphael, Go sort that out. God delegates to the angel, who puts himself into the situation to see what he can do. Raphael in turn delegates to Tobias – Burn the fish guts! Marry the girl! – as the angel weaves the struggles of Tobit and Sarah together in such a way as to resolve them both.
The book of Tobit offers us a model for how God works in the lives of ordinary people – even people who, like Sarah and Tobit, have reached extraordinary depths of misery and despair. The story says, God sees you. God hears you. Even if it takes a while. Even if it seems like nothing is changing. Somewhere out there, possibilities are taking shape. Hope is being born.
Raphael the undercover angel has this in common with Jesus, God dressed in a human body: The Divine doesn’t show up in clouds of glory, guns blazing, overwhelming our human stories. Instead the Divine might show up looking a lot like… your second cousin’s brother-in-law, whom you’ve never met but who sure came at the right time, and just happens to know something, or somebody, who can really help you out with this situation.
A big part of why I love the story of Tobit is that this just rings so true for me, this idea of God keeping an eye on us all, watching for the places where our needs intersect, giving a little nudge. Delegating the work of redemption, to angels and humans alike. Are there actual angels in disguise among us? I would not venture an opinion. But there have absolutely been moments in my life, my journey, when somebody has angeled for me, wings hidden under their sweater or alb or T-shirt, making the right connection, pointing me in a new direction, connecting me with fruitful possibilities. And I hope and pray that there have been, and will be, moments when I have angeled for somebody else. Been the agent and tool of God’s quiet intervention in human lives, God’s subtle work for hope, wholeness, and delight.
Over the past weeks, the Church Camp team, eating, sleeping, and breathing Tobit, has come up with some summaries of the book’s message. Like this one: “Always remember the restorative powers of fish guts.” Okay – maybe that one doesn’t apply to very many situations. The other one is, “Trust God; bring a shovel.”
Trust God; bring a shovel. The shovel is Tobit’s shovel, used to dig graves for the nameless dead in the streets, to offer them one final act of respect. A symbol of his stubborn faithfulness, his willingness to do God’s work when nobody else would. It’s also Raguel’s shovel, Sarah’s father – the one he used to dig a grave just in case the demon got Tobias, too! A symbol of… preparedness to do any clean-up that may become necessary?
Trust God, bring a shovel. You may need a shovel – or other tools – because God isn’t going to just make it all happen, burst into the story and clean things up and put everybody where they’re supposed to be. But – and – Trust God. God is keeping an eye on your story, and on the much larger story around you. Answers and possibilities and hopes may already be walking down the road towards you; or waiting for you when you set out to find them. Demons and bird poop may catch our attention, but there’s real wisdom in the Book of Tobit, to carry with us into our lives and our times. Pray your pain and struggle, as well as your blessings. Keep an eye peeled for angels – and for opportunities to do a little freelance angel work yourself. Be alert to the possibilities in everything, even fish guts. Take courage. Trust God, and bring a shovel.