Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Readings for Proper 27 (32) Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

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Proper 27B/Ordinary 32B/Pentecost 29 November 12, 2006 Textweek

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

We continue the narrative of Ruth which we looked at last week, and last week I suggested that it was a balancing text, that it offers a balance to the orthodox theological framework we are very familiar with. It’s also, just as an aside, interesting to look at these two readings one after the other, because last week the threads that were pulled out of the reading took us or invited us to look beyond family and that family-first theology, to look beyond the rightness of a nuclear family. Now one would think, as we’re continuing the reading, that we could pick that thread up and explore it further, but as we come to scripture each and every time, there are always other threads, there is always a voice that speaks to the moment.

Ruth is quite an important text; it’s stunningly underplayed and its importance is maybe underlined when we realize that our culture and our religion have established a set of givens. There is a set of values, a set of norms and understandings that provide us with precepts and principles, and those precepts and principles in turn shape the way that we behave and they shape our environment. And so in that shaping, they also then come full circle and shape our culture and our religion. It’s very easy therefore, to take one principle and one precept, to allow that to do some shaping and then from the reshaped place to come back, take the same precept and principle and again use it to reinforce. Now if we pick the wrong one at the beginning, we end up in a spiral of reinforcing a culture that perhaps got off on the wrong foot right at the beginning. So in scripture where we have balancing texts, I think it’s really helpful to spend time with them, to look at them, to read them. At the end of the day as Christians, followers of Christ, we are called to question and to shape our culture and our religion, to bring into realization a new heaven and a new earth. The revelation of Christ is not a revelation that says, ‘Well done, chaps, keep it up,’ rather it is a revelation to say there is something more: there is the unseen; the Kingdom of God is near. There is something to be seen and it is not far beyond that which we see.

As we look or continue to look at the narrative of Ruth, so perhaps we can see a few threads, a few insights to balance the orthodox paradigm that we already have and accept, and so some threads that are creative of a new perspective. This is, after all, a story of widows –Naomi, Ruth and Orpah - a story of widows, a story of the powerless, a story of the dispossessed and of those without the capacity to create. And yet it’s also a story of birth and it’s a foundational story; it’s an Easter story; it is a Christmas story. If we look at verse 14, ‘And the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the LORD, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him."

It was women who witnessed at the foot of the Cross; it was women who revealed the empty tomb and heralded the resurrection; it is these same women that now declare the blessing of Naomi. The declaration of this birth of blessing is made not to the mother, but to the grandmother of the child. It’s subtle, but it’s so important, the thread that’s being woven into the narrative. Naomi is the Israelite widow; her daughter-in-law, Ruth is the Moabite widow, a foreigner - not only dispossessed by her cultural position but also dispossessed as being on the outside of God’s chosen. The declaration of blessing from the women to Naomi is therefore made within the body of the faithful, Israelite to Israelite, and it is honouring of the foreigner and in fact, the blessing is brought about by the foreigner.

As we know from the story that has already unfolded, this blessing is not accidental; this is not one of those gifts of God, it’s not ordained, it’s not fate, it’s not a blessing that is born in love, nor is it a blessing that is born out of circumstance. Rather it was a deliberate and conscious activity that brought about blessing: ‘Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, "My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you.’ Now, here’s the plan: ‘Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, put on your best clothes….’ See what I mean? This is quite a conscious and deliberate participation in the creation of blessing. As a foundational narrative, this is a story like many of the stories we’ve heard Sunday by Sunday, of the leaven in the lump and it’s a story that is predicated on the principle that the divine is for all and permeates all. This is a story that takes us outside of Israel; this is a story that sees blessing initiated from outside, from the dispossessed.

There is some stunning underlining or emphasizing in the narrative, and it’s that which perhaps really gives or attests to its importance. Verse 15 says, ‘The child will be a restorer of life and your daughter-in-law …..’ - now this is the daughter-in-law who was the foreigner and the widow - ‘your daughter-in-law is more to you than seven sons.’ We can pick up what points are made there by just quickly having a look at the psalm, because that tells us about sons. ‘Sons are indeed the heritage from the LORD. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them.’ More to you than seven sons: the daughter-in-law, the Moabite, the foreigner, the widow is more than a full quiver of arrows. This narrative speaks of or rather calls us to realize, tremendous changes in the status quo. The widow, the powerless, the foreigner, the one who is outside of our faith paradigm, is the person and place of creation. This is a narrative that picks up the process that leads to the restoration of life. And just in case we’re still ‘iffy’, there’s a further underlining in the last verse, and once again this is given to the voice of the witnesses of the Cross, this is given to the voice of the revealers of the empty tomb. In verse 17, ‘the women of the neighborhood gave him a name…’; already we’ve got echoes of the Genesis story, the naming of creation. ‘The women gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.’ This is the lineage of Christ: ‘O root of Jesse, o son of David’. This is the story, the Genesis story, a Christmas story, an Easter story: the birth of Christ, which is our birth. This is a story of the divine becoming incarnate, the divine being realized and made manifest in us.

If we go to the Gospel, Mark’s Gospel, we get a far more stark, rather than the subtle teaching that we find in Ruth. I’m not sure if it’s a projection or not but sometimes I see in Christ the lack of patience; it’s as if the threads of the Ruth story have been found hanging. Jesus picks them up with immediacy and with clarity, so that they might be rewoven into the fabric of life. And what does he say? ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.’ Golly, who’s he talking about here? Christabel, stand up for a moment: beware of the scribes who dress up in long robes. It is obvious, he’s talking about Christabel … and people like her! Now you might have thought it’s obvious that he’s speaking about people like this, who dress up in long robes – that’s where we all go. It’s very easy for me to point to Christabel and you to point to me. Stunning! Think again, what is being taught here? Just because we live in a land of shorts and thongs, don’t think that we’re not weighed down by long robes.

Verse 40 says, ‘They devour the widows' houses.’ It would hard to find another metaphor that is more damning of the status quo: they devour widows' houses. And once again, just a little further on we have the widow appearing once more. ‘This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.’ The contrast in Mark’s Gospel between the many rich people and the poor widow is even more poignant today. At least in Mark’s Gospel the many rich still put in large sums. The many rich in our culture today are even further – the gap between the many rich and the poor widow has become even wider since the Gospel was written.

We, as church and as creators of our culture, might therefore ask of ourselves, to what do we contribute? What do we give? Perhaps even more importantly, from where within does our giving come – from our abundance or from our poverty? Baby-boomers and Christians of the twenty-first century alike do not look much like Moabite widows and so they do not stand in the place of creativity, in the place of birth. They look more like the ones who devour widows’ houses than being the ones who are restorers of life, and in Paul’s letter, that little passage from the letter to the Hebrews, there’s a slight reorientation for us. It just suggests a slight movement: ‘For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself.’ As we consider what we contribute, what we give and from where we give, so what we are doing is we are considering our orientation toward life ….. or death.

Imagine if we entered into the same Christ-like enterprise that is being spoken about in Hebrews, giving of ourselves to realise heaven on earth, knowing our poverty and giving from that place, because if we can give from our poverty, then we too become restorers of life. Then He will appear, for we will make manifest that which is divine. They’re stunning readings, let’s pray that we can stay with them.

The Lord be with you
Peter Humphris