In the United States today is the secular feast day called Memorial Day, when we remember our honored dead. The excerpt from Tobit, and the story of the tenants, raises some questions about the dead. The Psalm nicely pulls in the powerful theme of justice.
Tobit got in trouble with the authorities of his time because he would do kind things for the less respected members of his society. He went out of his way to bury the dead who were executed for having displeased the king. So his reaction to Tobiah’s news is not surprising – he jumps up, leaving his own meal and concerns, to pay respect to the poor unfortunate who was strangled and left dead in the street. Even though his neighbors mocked him, Tobit still took the time to properly bury this person in accordance with Mosaic dictates. His reverence for the body of a fellow human being, a creature of God, outweighed the derision of his neighbors and potential personal risk of retribution by the authorities.
I don’t think many American Christians realize the power of the burial ritual to observant Jews. How many of us would drop what we are doing for ourselves to perform a ritual such as this for a person we might not even know? A good friend of mine is a devout Jew who keeps kosher and very strictly follows the Sabbath provisions. He once related to me that one of his personal ministries is to help prepare a body for a funeral. He told of the ritual washing and the prayers that he says as he performs the act of cleansing of the remains. I could see in his eyes how important he felt this ritual was, and how it was part of the whole of his faith tradition. I was struck by the inconsistency between how he treated someone who might not even be a relative, and how many (most?) of us react to the corpse of a loved one. I was with both my parents when they died, but I realize now I did not have the rich ritualistic sense of closure that my friend has through his actions. I kissed them both goodbye, and whispered a few words, but the preparation for burial was left to others. Some families may now take part in the process of preparing their deceased loved one for burial, but how many would do what Tobit did – for strangers?
The tenant story is interesting on several levels. The obvious self-awareness of Jesus as the son who is killed is a not-so-subtle message. But what did the tenants think they would accomplish by killing the heir? It reminds me of the question most parents put at one time or another to a child who has done something that from the parent’s perspective seems puzzling – “What were you thinking??!!” The killing by the vineyard tenants also reminds me of the story of the goose that laid golden eggs – let’s kill it to get the gold from its insides – what were you thinking? And yet God keeps sending us messages, and we continue to ignore the gold that is in the messages, the example of the heir, the Son – what are we thinking??
The last stanza of the psalm reminds me of my favorite line – “the just man justices” – from a poem, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tobit was a man who was gracious and merciful and just, who conducted his affairs with justice. He was other concerned when it would be easy for him to be self concerned. He was a great example of a just man who justiced.
And so my prayer today is for a greater reverence for the memory of our honored dead, a stronger awareness of the message that God sends me daily, and a deeper resolve to justice.
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