Angels: A Six Part Series

Part III: The Angel Raphael

The book of Tobit is a story about a wealthy Israelite living among the captives deported to Nineveh, from the northern kingdom. Tobit suffered loss of property, and later the loss of his eyesight. Plunged into suffering, he begs the Lord to let him die. At the same time, a young woman in Media, Sarah, also prays for death. After recalling that he earlier deposited money in far away Media, Tobit sends his son, Tobiah, on a journey to bring it back. The story is rich in theological meaning, and it is not possible to do complete justice to it in an article of this size, so I am going to limit myself to a few points on the angel Raphael.

Tobit was a profoundly just man. Orphans, widows, the homeless, and the sick were always at the forefront of his mind, and he would risk his life to ensure that his murdered kinsmen would receive a proper burial:

'Father', I said to him, 'what is it, son?' He answered, 'Father, one of our people has been murdered! His body lies in the market place where he was just strangled!' I sprang to my feet, leaving the dinner untouched; and I carried the dead man from the street and put him in one of the rooms, so that I might bury him after sunset. Returning to my own quarter, I washed myself and ate my food in sorrow. (Tb 2, 3-5)

Sarah also made a decision that put her father before her own immediate wish. In the midst of acute feelings of sorrow and shame for being falsely accused, she decided, nevertheless, not to kill herself: "She reconsidered, saying to herself: "No! People would level this insult against my father...I would cause my father in his old age to go down to the netherworld laden with sorrow" (Tb 3, 10). She acted not on the basis of her feelings. Rather, her love for her father was stronger than her desire to be released from her sorrow.

Both Tobit and Sarah chose well in the midst of their suffering lives, and in the darkness of despair, they surrendered their lives into the hands of God. Their prayers were heard in the presence of God:

So Raphael was sent to heal them both: to remove the cataracts from Tobit's eyes, so that he might again see God's sunlight; and to marry Raguel's daughter Sarah to Tobit's son Tobiah, and then drive the wicked demon Asmodeus from her. (Tb 3, 17)

That the book of Tobit is not historical is irrelevant to the revealed content of the book. What is asserted, among other things, is that angels are directly concerned with human affairs, and that -- somewhat less certain -- at times angels can assume bodies and appear to people with or without their being aware of the fact.

But what is particularly worthy of consideration is the difference between Tobit's instruction to his son and Raphael's final exhortation to them both. One of the most inspiring parts of the book is Tobit's instruction to Tobiah, which has such breadth that it embraces all the parts of justice: filial piety, religion, commutative justice, and legal justice. Just before Tobiah was to set off on his journey to Media, Tobit calls him over to give him his final will and testament. He begins with instructions regarding filial piety. "...when I die, give me a decent burial. Honor your mother, and do not abandon her as long as she lives. Do what ever pleases her, and do not grieve her spirit in any way" (Tb 4, 3). He exhorts Tobiah to keep in mind the many trials she endured while he was in the womb. Tobiah is told to keep the Lord in mind and to suppress every desire to sin, to give alms and never turn his face from any of the poor.

Son, give alms in proportion to what you own. If you have great wealth, give alms out of your abundance; if you have but little, distribute even some of that. But do not hesitate to give alms; you will be storing up a goodly treasure for yourself against the day of adversity. Almsgiving frees one from death, and keeps one from going into the dark abode. Alms are a worthy offering in the sight of the Most High for all who give them.... Do not keep with you overnight the wages of any man who works for you, but pay him immediately...Keep a close watch on yourself, my son, in everything you do, and discipline yourself in all your conduct. Do to no one what you yourself dislike...Give to the hungry some of your bread, and to the naked some of your clothing...Seek counsel from every wise man, and do not think lightly of any advice that can be useful. At all times bless the Lord God, and ask him to make all your paths straight and to grant success to all your endeavors and plans. (Tb 4, 3-19)

The angel Raphael's final exhortation is very similar to Tobit's, but it exhibits a slightly different order. Raphael does not begin with an exhortation to filial piety, a very important part of the virtue of justice by which we render due honour to our parents. He begins, rather, with the most perfect part of justice, without which there is no justice, namely, the virtue of religion. Since we cannot completely satisfy the debt we owe to God, the virtue of religion disposes us to render, as far as possible, the honor and worship due to Him, which includes acts of praise, thanksgiving, and the decision to make God the very center of our lives.

Raphael called the two men aside privately and said to them: "Thank God! Give him the praise and the glory. Before all the living, acknowledge the many good things he has done for you, by blessing and extolling his name in song. Before all men, honor and proclaim God's deeds, and do not be slack in praising him. A king's secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be declared and made known. Praise them with due honor. Do good, and evil will not find its way to you. Prayer and fasting are good, but better than either is almsgiving accompanied by righteousness. A little with righteousness is better than abundance with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold; for almsgiving saves one from death and expiates every sin. Those who regularly give alms shall enjoy a full life; but those habitually guilty of sin are their own worst enemies... A king's secret it is prudent to keep, but the works of God are to be made known with due honor. (Tb 12, 6-11)

Evidently, the virtue of religion has a certain priority. The angel repeatedly exhorts them to thanksgiving and to keep alive in memory all that God has done for them -- for history has shown all too clearly that when the good things that God has done for us are forgotten, all those who belong to God are also forgotten and charity grows cold. Tobit was unaware of the close attention that was being paid to his acts of fidelity to the Law and that it was an angel who presented the record of his prayer before the Glory of the Lord. The name 'Raphael' means, "God heals", for he was the angel through whom God brought healing to the suffering lives of Tobit and Sarah.

I can now tell you that when you, Tobit, and Sarah prayed, it was I who presented and read the record of your prayer before the Glory of the Lord; and I did the same thing when you used to bury the dead. When you did not hesitate to get up and leave your dinner in order to go and bury the dead, I was sent to put you to the test. At the same time, however, God commissioned me to heal you and your daughter-in-law Sarah. I am Raphael, one of the seven angels who enter and serve before the Glory of the Lord...Thank God now and forever. As for me, when I came to you it was not out of any favor on my part, but because it was God's will. So continue to thank him every day; praise him with song. Even though you watched me eat and drink, I did not really do so; what you were seeing was a vision. So now get up from the ground and praise God. Behold, I am about to ascend to him who sent me; write down all these things that have happened to you. When Raphael ascended, they rose to their feet and could no longer see him. They kept thanking God and singing his praises; and they continued to acknowledge these marvellous deeds which he had done when the angel of God appeared to them. (Tb 12, 11-22)

The joy that this angel brought to Tobit's life is evident in his song of thanksgiving in chapter thirteen. The entire book of Tobit is an illustration of the truth that the choices we make in relation to the virtue of justice and its parts are pivotal in regard to the kinds of things angels will do for us in our own lives. The book illustrates that God is closer to us than we tend to be aware of. In short, our lives are under the preternatural protection of angels, especially in our deepest suffering.

Next Page: Part IV: The Angel Gabriel
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