Apocrypha - Tobit
We continue our journey through the Apocrypha, these writings which fall somewhere between the Old Testament and the New, stories that may not have made into authorised, Protestant versions of scripture but which, well, I reckon still contain some valuable lessons and insights for us, lessons about faith and about truth. We heard last week about Tobit and a little bit about his future daughter-in-law Sarah, but this week the emphasis shifts from Tobit to his son, Tobias and how he and Sarah got together.
Just a wee bit of background to this week’s readin. Tobit had instructed Tobias to travel to his relatives, it was actually in order to collect some money they were due to him, and he was accompanied by an angel, Raphael – although, in our passage he calls himself Azariah. We’re also told ‘the dog came out with them and walked with him.’ If you’ve been paying attention to the story up until now you probably wondered the same as me – ‘wait, what dog, nobody’s mentioned a dog so far?’ That’s true, it just kind of appeared from nowhere! The money, and the dog, are a bit of a side issue though, maybe we’ll come back to them next week, but what we’re concerned with today is the other reason for Tobias’ journey, and that’s to meet and marry Sarah.
On the way, as you’ve heard, a pretty strange thing happens. As Tobias washes his feet in the River Tigris, a fish – and it must have been a pretty big one – tries to swallow his foot and it ends up being caught and cooked. You can see an image of this on the front of your orders of service. Not all of it is cooked, though, as the angel tells Tobias to keep parts of it for, well, he says for medicinal reasons. As I say, it’s all pretty strange.
Well, eventually Raphael (or Azariah) leads Tobias to Sarah, who he was to end up being his wife. Now Sarah had actually been married seven times already, only these marriages didn’t end well. They didn’t start well either. Actually, you could say they didn’t really start at all, because each time Sarah was married, a demon appeared on her wedding night and killed her new husband. So Sarah was not exactly the most fortunate of brides – and let’s face it, her seven husbands weren’t exactly lucky themselves. Anne introduced us to this last week, and as she was telling us about it, I couldn’t help but remember a story I once heard. It’s about a man and a woman who were, let’s say in the twilight of their years together.
One evening, they were sitting together peacefully. The man was reading his book and his wife was busy with her knitting. He looked up from his book and said, ‘Put your knitting away for a minute, my dear, I’ve got something I want to say to you.’ She put down her knitting.
‘I was just thinking,’ he said, ‘You’ve always been there for me, haven’t you? Whatever we’ve gone through you’ve been there for me, right by my side.’
‘Aye, I have that,’ she said.
‘When we first got together, all those years ago,’ he said, ‘It was during the Great Depression, wasn’t it? Poor as church mice, we were, I couldn’t find a job for love or money, but it didn’t matter, because you were there for me, right by my side.
When I went off to do my National Service, it was tough going – I don’t think I was ever cut out to be a soldier. Didn’t like it all. But I knew that even if you weren’t with me in person, I knew you were there in spirit, right by my side.
And then when I was de-mobbed, when I did eventually get a job down the pit, boy, it was hard work. Dirty, back-breaking hard work. But it didn’t matter, because when I came home every day there you were, right by my side.
Then the pit closed, and I was out of a job again. But it didn’t seem to matter, because you were there for me, right by my side.
Do you remember when I broke my leg that time, when we were on holiday? I was in so much pain with that, it still plays up every time it rains. But through all the pain, then and now, with all the health troubles I’ve had over the past few years, my heart, my arthritis. You’ve stuck with me through it all, you’ve been there for me, right by my side.
Now here we are, long retired. In this wee house where the heating doesn’t work half the time and the telly’s always on the blink. And you’re still there, right by my side. And you know something, my dear, this is what I wanted to tell you.’
‘What’s that, my love?’ she said.
“I think you’ve brought me nothing but bad luck.’
Sarah was bad luck for each of her seven husbands, the worst kind of bad luck, because she had a demon hanging around her. There were even whispers in the family that Sarah maybe had more to do with the suspicious deaths of each of them than she was letting on – they only had her word for it that it was a demon that was doing in her men. It’s not in our reading today, but Sarah was suspected by some of bumping them off, one by one. But anyway, everything changed when Tobias came along. What was different this time, though?
Well, what was different is that Tobias had something that none of Sarah’s previous husbands had. Tobias had a secret weapon, you see; he had exactly what he needed to make sure he lasted through the night with his new bride. Tobias had special demon-expelling fish bits.
You probably haven’t noticed, I’d be really surprised if you did, but I’ve got a safety pin here in the lapel of my jacket. I try not to leave the house without a safety pin attached to my clothes somewhere. It’s not for superstitious reasons, it’s just that, well, you never know when a safety pin is going to come in handy. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually had to use it, and I’ve been doing this for a lot of years, but that’s not the point. I just know that if I need it, it’s there. If the hem of my trousers falls down, not to worry, I’ve got a safety pin. If a button comes off my shirt – I’ve got a pin, I’m alright. If anybody needs something pinned, I’m your man. Having a safety pin with you all the time is like having insurance – you hope you don’t need it, but you’ll be glad it’s there when you do. One thing it’s not going to do is to scare off any demons – well, not unless I poke them really hard with it.
Tobias’ insurance, his safety pin if you like, was the innards of that fish that had attacked him as he washed his feet in the Tigris river. It turns out that the parts of the fish he and Raphael had kept for medicinal reasons had other qualities too. Now, there are parts of Tobias and Sarah’s story that I can’t take too seriously, to be honest. I’m sure you’ve probably got the same concerns. The idea of a fish trying to bite off a man’s foot – no, too far-fetched, isn’t it? Seven husbands all dying on their wedding night, and a demon being responsible for their deaths. The demon gets sent packing thanks to the scent of the fish being cooked. It’s all a bit too bizarre, isn’t it? Surely we’re not meant to take all of this literally?
I don’t think we are, so what about if I tell the story a different way, stripping out all the talk of vicious fish and demons? Tobit sends Tobias and Raphael to help Sarah with the bad stuff that’s going on all around her. Tobias deals with the bad stuff, saves Sarah and (we’ll get to this next week, I think) takes her back with him to live with his dad. A loving father sends his only son, along with a holy spirit, to save someone from evil, and takes that person home with him to live in his father’s house. Does that maybe sound familiar?
If we miss the point, that’s okay, we’re not the first. You know, unlike much of the rest of the Apocrypha, I think this part of the book of Tobit is actually referred to in the New Testament. It’s where Jesus was being tested by the Sadducees, when they were asking him all sorts of questions about the Resurrection, trying to catch him out. I’m going to read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 22:
'“Teacher,” they said, “Moses said that if a man who has no children dies, his brother must marry the widow so that they can have children who will be considered the dead man's children. Now, there were seven brothers who used to live here. The eldest got married and died without having children, so he left his widow to his brother. The same thing happened to the second brother, to the third, and finally to all seven. Last of all, the woman died. Now, on the day when the dead rise to life, whose wife will she be? All of them had married her.”
I think this is a reference to what happens in the Book of Tobit, minus all the talk of demons. The thing is, the Sadducees didn’t quite get the point of the story they were telling, and Jesus wasn’t slow in pointing this out to them. He said, and this is from Matthew 22 as well, ‘You don’t know the scriptures or God’s power.’
The Sadducees, whose faith in the Resurrection was suspect, non-existent, even, they wanted to pick holes in it, make it seem unreasonable, unlikely. But they didn’t realise they were talking to the living Resurrection Himself, the man with all the answers. He told them what the Scriptures said, that marriage is for this life, not the next, but more importantly, I think he was telling them not to get bogged down in the details of the law, to simply have faith.
And we shouldn’t make the same mistake as the Sadducees by focusing on the details and the implications, by looking for the loopholes and searching out explanations for everything that lies before us. In Tobias’ story, Sarah’s father, Raguel, was a bit like the Sadducees, he didn’t believe all would end well, he had little or no faith – in fact, he had a grave all prepared for Tobias, believing that like the other seven husbands he wouldn’t last the night.
Raguel had little or no faith, but he was proved wrong – ‘it has not turned out as I expected,’ he said. What about our faith, though?
Our faith doesn’t lie in the belief that evil can be overcome by spells and potions, not by safety pins and fish guts. Our faith isn’t an insurance policy that we’re happy to have but we hope we don’t need. That’s the wrong kind of faith. The right kind of faith is faith in the big picture. If you can get past all of the fairytale aspects of the Book of Tobit, all the unreasonable, unlikely parts of it, you can see the big picture, you can see it as a prediction of Jesus himself, a reminder of the salvation that lies in store for us, through Him: the Son being sent by the Father, armed with the power of the Holy Spirit, with His sole aim being to rescue us from all that’s wrong in our lives and then take us back with Him to His Father’s House. And having faith in that, in Him, well, that’s the right kind of faith we should hold on to.