Be sure to read this unique scene found in today’s reading from the Book of Tobit. It is one of the most true-to-life accounts in all the Scriptures, one that can easily translate into today’s world and into the dynamics of contemporary families.
The account begins with the tragic accident that renders Tobit blind. While Tobit is sleeping in his courtyard on a hot afternoon, birds perched overhead in a tree leave their droppings fall into Tobit’s eyes. Even after a doctor has prescribed some with various herbal salves, Tobit loses his eyesight (later in the Book of Tobit his sight will be miraculously restored). For years thereafter, his extended family takes care of him.
The scene in today’s reading takes place while Tobit is still suffering from his blindness and frustrated by it. To make ends meet, Tobit’s wife Anna, a skilled weaver, works for a living. Once, apparently, very pleased by her work, a patron not only paid her in full but gave her as a bonus the gift of a young goat suitable for feeding her family.
When Anna brings the young goat home, it starts to bleat, disturbing the blind Tobit and causing him to angrily cry out, “Where did this goat come from? Perhaps it was stolen! Give it back to the owners; we have no right to eat stolen food!”
No doubt shocked and disappointed at her husband’s response, Anna exclaims, “It was given to me as a bonus over and above my wages.” But Tobit will not relent and becomes all the angrier, demanding she give the goat back to its owners.
But Anna will have the last word, “Where are your charitable deeds now? Where are your virtuous acts? See! Your true character is finally showing itself!”
Does this sound in any way familiar? As a congregation, we are to respond to this reading with the usual formula: “The Word of the Lord…Thanks be to God!” And what is the Word of God here exactly? It is interesting that some older commentaries defended Tobit in this scene—pointing out that the arrogance of Anna is one of the consequences of a woman working outside the home, to the shame of her husband who is the head of the family.
But one senses that the original meaning of this domestic scene—and one likely to be understood by most women today for sure—is that Tobit was the offending character. His frustration and anger about his debilitating accident and the fact that Anna is the one providing for the family, wounds his male pride most of all. No matter what his other genuine virtues may be, he fails here in appreciating the love and sacrifice his wife is providing for his family.
No wonder this story has been the subject of art and commentary through the centuries, including a famous painting by Rembrandt. Married couples will recognize how incidents like this can be a source of tension, especially when one spouse overlooks the contributions that the other makes to the life of the family. And the scene also gives voice to what many thoughtful women feel today, both in society and in the church, when their rightful role is overlooked or suppressed.
In his recent book, Let us Dream, Pope Francis notes that whenever he has been asked to preach at a wedding, he offers three words or phrases that married couples should always keep in mind: 1) “May I?” by which he means that no important decision or concern should ever happen without consulting one’s spouse; 2) “Thank you” – neither spouse should ever take the other for granted but take every opportunity to express their love and appreciation for each other. And 3)—perhaps the Tobit lesson— “Forgive me.” Enduring married love depends a lot on the ability of each spouse to ask the other’s forgiveness for any hurt inflicted.
Words of advice and the Word of God that the virtuous Tobit should remember in today’s reading!
Fr. Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.