One interesting feature of today’s reading is the phrase: “Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness.”
The New American Bible is the only version which translates the phrase this way. I have two other English translations and four different foreign language versions that read: “Prayer with fasting and alms with right conduct are better than riches with iniquity.”
Tobiah’s Good Conduct With the Help of Angels
The Book of Tobit presents a beautiful story of how God delivers people in a desperate situation who have undergone much anguish. He does it in such a way that it is actually good people guided by God who are the instruments in the deliverance. Thus Raphael the Archangel, posing as one of Tobiah’s distant relatives, instructs Tobiah how to drive away the demon plaguing Sarah. Then he teaches him how to remove his father’s blindness. Only after Tobiah completes all this does he reveal himself.
Today Raphael states that he was the one who brought the prayers of Tobit and Sarah to God. This indicates in the first place that it was the prayer of good people who were suffering that prompted this great result. It is also interesting to note that the angels have a role in presenting prayers to God. So in the prayer itself God gives a role to His creatures the angels.
Raphael then makes known that it was when Tobit left his dinner to bury the dead—making a sacrifice to do something good—that brought on Tobit’s subsequent blindness. This goes against much of what we like to believe, because it states that Tobit’s goodness brought about the trial of his blindness. At the same time, Raphael adds, it brought about healing for Tobit and Sarah.
We ordinarily do not like to hear that faithfulness to God brings on suffering. We mostly think the opposite: that virtue brings reward and sin brings suffering. Often in this life it happens this way. When Solomon chose wisdom over temporal goods, he received God’s direct blessing, but also all the advantages that wisdom brings a ruler and the people he rules. People came to know of his wisdom, and even distant people honored him. Inversely, when Haman, out of hatred, tried to persuade the King of Persia to slaughter all the Jews in Esther’s time, this hatred rebounded back on him and resulted in his own execution.
Trials Leading to Great Good
Sometimes, though, people resolute in following God can expect trials which lead to a greater good than they ever imagined. In the Book of Genesis, Joseph experienced injustice time after time, but God always blessed his actions. In the end he became the second most powerful man in Egypt and was able to bring his family to safety and even to a position of high status in Egypt. And all he had wanted was to be released from prison in Egypt.
The members of the early Church surely prayed for an end to their persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire. I think they never suspected that in the end virtually all the people of the Empire
would convert and enter the Church. But of course this unexpected result involved faithful endurance on the part of centuries of martyrs and other saints.
It might seem today that evil is ascendant. It is for us to pray, to maintain faithfulness to our great Lord. In this way our world, our society will experience the outpouring of grace that results from the persevering prayer of many good people united in Christ.