Blessed the man who fears the LORD,
who greatly delights in his commands.
His posterity shall be mighty upon the earth; the upright generation shall be blessed.
In both readings today we hear of an isolated man beset by troubles. Tobit has scrupulously kept the Law of God by burying a kinsman who was found murdered in the street. The murder was not a mugging gone bad; it was an act of state-sponsored terrorism. Burying the dead took extraordinary courage because the government did not want any kind of attention drawn to its foul deeds. Silent scavenging animals would take care of that sort of thing.
This story of horror is not an ancient one; it is all too familiar.
I met an African priest who told me of a similar event in his village, when he was a boy. A small militia raided his village and murdered a prominent citizen. They warned the people not to bury the dead and it was left for several days there in the street. The children could not but watch what happened. One morning it was gone, hyenas had carried away the rotting carcass in the night. For many years my traumatized friend avoided that haunted intersection.
In today's story we learn how Tobit went blind. He would not have been sleeping under the tree had he not been observing the Jewish rules of purity. This is one of those stories that concludes, "No good deed will go unpunished."
Profoundly distressed by this chain events he became morose and bitter. His righteousness soured; he became suspicious and paranoid. He suspected his long-suffering wife of stealing. We can well imagine Tobit's cry when he realized how unbearable he had become to his loved ones, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?"
But Tobit was, nonetheless, "a man who fears the LORD." Living among exiles in a dangerous place he struggled to keep the religious traditions of his ancestors. He would not surrender to the barbaric culture of ancient Assyria.
Today's gospel finds Jesus struggling with similar issues. He and the Pharisees were certainly living in their native land, but it was occupied by Roman soldiers who extracted taxes from every commercial transaction, and gave little in return.
Some people resisted that imposition. The Pharisees and Herodians who confronted Jesus in this story did not resist; they paid the taxes but they challenged the Lord about his attitudes toward Rome. "Should we pay the tax or not?"
Resisters could claim the higher moral ground. They would rely on God as their protector against unjust laws, arrests, conviction and imprisonment. Their foot-dragging might even stir up rebellion; an army led by God might arise to throw out the invaders.
Shouldn't that be the Messiah's preference?
Jesus answer eludes them. He is neither yea nor nay. The Church throughout its history critiques cultures and governments, challenging them with our humane values; but it does not call for revolution. Because no human society remotely resembles the Kingdom of God, we cannot expect upheaval to produce any significant advance toward justice, much less peace. Dictatorships and democracies need continual challenge; both are subject to corruption.
Jesus' tells us, "Render to God what is God's." Christians, unlike the Roman coin, are stamped with the image of Christ. The ashes of Lent on our foreheads set us apart as those who acknowledge their own sin; we're less eager to point out the sins of others. We must render to God our lives.
We have been sent from Jerusalem, as Tobit was sent from Israel, to model reverence for human life in all its forms, from birth to death. There can be nothing alien about that though our neighbors might wonder, as Pilate wondered of Jesus, "Where do you come from?" Like Tobit, we are strangers and aliens in this country, holy sojourners passing through.