Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Readings for Proper 26 (31) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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Proper 26B/Ordinary 31B/Pentecost 29 November 5, 2006 Textweek


In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

What is that story of Ruth all about? Why was it or is it important enough to be included in Holy Scripture? We listen to it, it’s quite a delightful story, but you wonder why: why this one, why was it put there, what is it seeking to say? Sometimes it’s good just to think what echoes do you hear when you hear that story, when you hear the story of Ruth and Orpah, Mary and Martha, Peter and Paul, James and John. Quite often when there are two people in the middle of a narrative it’s an opportunity for us to look at two sides of ourselves in our own narrative. I think that the story’s there – and I think it’s a very important story - and I think it’s there as a balancing text, a text that creates some balance, and perhaps it’s one of those stories that’s often overlooked because it seems to focus on women. After all the Christian church, in line with many other religions, still considers women as inferior. They’re not of a capability such as men and, according to mainstream Christianity, they’re not therefore capable or eligible to hold the role of bishop. That might actually say more about the office of bishop than it says about women.

The story of Ruth, I think, is a balancing text. It brings balance to the self-centred, family–first theology that we are fed. This is not an oppositional view, it is also not a corrective view, it is not trying to point out one thing is wrong and this is right, but rather it is there to bring balance. It is a story that narrates and illuminates and gives credibility to relationships that extend beyond our nuclear family paradigm. Another way to read it, which is stunningly interesting, is to read it and only read the movement in it. This is what it sounds like: want to live, went into, remained, lived, started to return, set out from, went on their way, to go back, return with, turn back, turn back, go your own way, gone back, return, to live, turn back, I will go. There is an amazing amount of movement. Undeniably this is a dynamic story and that in itself is suggestive of the Trinity, the movement of the Spirit and the creative activity of the divine. It’s a story of movement.

The psalm, quite subtlely underlines the threads that are being exposed and explored in the narrative of Ruth. The psalm we just read, verse 9: ‘The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ – those without family – and thus the psalm draws our attention beyond family. Ruth and Orpah - as the narrative unfolds they separate and go different ways in between the psalm and pointing us towards the Gospel, there was that brief theological teaching from Hebrews. It heralds the Gospel, it calls us to the purifying revelation of Christ and it therefore clearly asks us: purify, ‘purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God’, the divine dynamic that is alive and enlivening of all. So we’ve got the movement in the narrative from Ruth, that is underlined in the psalm, now we’re being pointed towards the Gospel, a purifying dynamic.

Many of us, I think, would know today’s gospel, or at least the guts of it, off by heart; I wonder though how many of us have actually sought to take it to heart. When John Howard says that the primary relationship of humanity is that between husband and wife he directly opposes today’s gospel and yet he only echoes the same flat-earth paradigm that is held by the mainstream Christian church.

Today’s Gospel is amazingly clear and simple. Most of us if we just take five minutes out of a busy day would find its truth to be understandable and acceptable, but our lives, our culture, our religion and our values somehow betray that very simplicity. We might question where has that distortion crept in? The question that is put by the scribe in the Gospel is not a trick question, rather it is an open question that is seeking enlightenment. It’s a device used by the writer of Mark in order to give us by way of the response, the teaching that is revealed in Christ: which commandment is first? This isn’t ‘pick one from ten’, but it almost is. In the Jewish tradition it would have been pick one from about six hundred and thirteen – which commandment is first? It’s something that scribes would discuss, it’s something that we discuss day by day, minute by minute, in every decision we make in our lives; from the moment the toothbrush hits the teeth in the morning until we fall asleep in bed at night, this is the question that you ask yourself throughout the day. Which commandment is first, what will I follow, what steps will I take, where will I go, what priorities will I set, to what will I attend, to what will I give my heart, to what will I give myself?

Which commandment is first? ‘The Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God.’ As soon as that’s uttered Jesus carries on, he adds a second to the first. He redefines what was the traditional first commandment, redefines it into a new, into a contemporary and into a fuller first: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. Those two commandments brought together as one provide us with a context in which we can set our understanding of relationships. And what an auspicious day to have this word revealed to us: ‘Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.’

This is the day that Guy Fawkes sought to overturn the status quo. The Gospel has got the same explosive capacity, and the established order of state and church will actively seek to prevent us from lighting the fuse. To love God and to love your neighbour as yourself will ignite the divine that abides in all: no longer manipulated and controlled as fear-ridden consumers, we will realize our spirit-filled power. We will become like explosives, uncontrollable. We will not be afraid; we will not be afraid of women bishops, gay marriages, refugees, Muslims, we will not be afraid. We will lose our blindness and we will see again and so have the opportunity to reclaim the creativity of love, which overcomes forever and always, the dumbing-down of fear.

The Lord be with You.
Peter Humphris