The Old Testament Book of Tobit is a fanciful tale of Jewish life about two hundred years before Christ.
Prayers, psalms, and aphorisms blend a chilling narrative about persecution with a charming tale about young love. Tobit’s many blessings from God come to an abrupt end when he is found to have buried the bodies of faithful Jews executed by the wicked ruler Sennacherib. The book records, “If I saw one of my people who had died and been thrown behind the wall of Nineveh, I used to bury him. Sennacherib returned from Judea…whomever he killed I buried. For in his rage he killed many Israelites, but I used to take their bodies away by stealth and bury them…But a certain Ninevite went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them, and I went into hiding. When I realized that the king knew about me and that I was being hunted to be put to death, I became afraid and took flight. All my property was confiscated; I was left with nothing. All that I had was taken to the king’s palace, except for my wife Anna and my son Tobiah (1:17-20).”
Zealous concern for the burial of the dead continues throughout the Book of Tobit. A line in chapter four reads, “So he called his son Tobiah; and when he came, he said to him: “Son, when I die, give me a decent burial (4:3-4).” And again chapter six “If I should die, I would bring the life of my father and mother down to their grave in sorrow over me; they have no other son to bury them (6:15).” And in chapter fourteen: “When Tobiah’s mother died, he buried her next to his father. He then departed with his wife and children for Media, where he settled in Ecbatana with his father-in-law Raguel. He took respectful care of his aging father-in-law and mother-in-law; and he buried them at Ecbatana in Media (14:12–13).” Proper burial of the dead of course continued into the Christian tradition being regularly included as one the corporal works of mercy to this day.
Jesus’ dialogues with the Jewish leaders on the street corners of Jerusalem and country roads of Galilee make clear that the keeping of the Mosaic Law was not only an obligation for the Jews of ancient Israel but in some cases an obsession. Jesus himself mocks their washing of jugs and kettles while neglecting weightier matters of Jewish life. And, as the verses cited above from the Book of Tobit testify, the burial of the dead was one of the primary and certainly laudable and legitimate concerns of any law-abiding Jew of Jesus’ day. Think of the care that was afforded Jesus Christ’s own burial after his shameful death. Proper burial was certainly the privilege and the obligation of any faithful Jew.
In this context of reverence for the dead and respect for the Mosaic Law, imagine the shocking reaction these words of Jesus would evoke from any pious Jew overhearing them: “And to another he said, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But he answered him, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God (Lk.9:60).” Jesus’ harsh words to the mourning young man are joined by equally demanding calls to other prospective disciples: “… someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head….And another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to my family at home.” To him Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” These are challenging words indeed!
Jesus of course would have had in mind the episode from the Book of Kings (1Kgs 19:16b,19-21) recently read at Sunday Mass concerning Elijah’s invitation to Elisha. Elisha initially hesitates to accept Elijah’s call to follow in his prophetic ministry: “Please, let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and I will follow you.” The older prophet is at first dismayed, “Go back!” But then, reconciled, “…Elisha left and followed Elijah as his attendant.”
These three accounts – Tobit, the prospective disciples, Elisha – are all incidences about commitment. Tobit’s commitment to mercy, the disciples’ commitment to evangelization, and Elisha’s commitment to prophecy were all practical examples of the supreme law noted by St. Paul in Galatians (5:13): “Serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love takes many forms in the Christian life: mercy, courage, sacrifice. But they all demand total commitment and forgetfulness of self. The hand must be firmly on the plow!