Covenants Have Legs

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Ruth 1:1-18 (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)
Psalm 146 (Psalm 119:1-8)
Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 12:28-34

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been thinking some about the notion covenant lately, or perhaps it’s because it’s simply obvious, but when I read the lectionary for this week, I couldn’t help but notice that both the primary and alternate texts presuppose or allude to God’s Covenant with Israel. Among the root senses of the Hebrew word for covenant, b’rith, is the act of binding oneself to another. God binds Godself to Israel, and asks Israel likewise to bind itself to God and become God’s partner in the ongoing work of lovingly restoring the original peace of our broken Creation. That God invites a people – Israel, and by extension, the Church – to be part of this work suggests that the Covenant “has legs.”

The idiomatic attribution of “legs” to an idea, expression, or cultural artifact has come to be a way of noting its persistence, its ability to stand the test of time and outlive its originating context. In this sense, classical works of art and literature have legs – think Shakespeare, Dante, Mozart, or perhaps even the Beatles or Bob Dylan. So do great ideas – think Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity or Dr. King’s beloved community. The biblical covenants have proven to have these kinds of legs, both as bases of the Jewish and Christian faiths and as increasingly vestigial presences in the cultural imagination of so-called “western” societies.

Interestingly, though, the expression “have legs” found its way into the English lexicon (says the Oxford English Dictionary) in the second half of the nineteenth century as a way of noting the practical effects of an action. The first recorded use of the expression, in fact, was in 1869, and referred to a billiards shot, which was said to “have legs” because it propelled the object ball to its intended destination, which is to say the shot did the work it was intended to do. Even more than the former sense, the biblical covenants have these kind of legs for those bound by them, in that they take us places and call us to particular expectations and obligations toward others, including some we’d just as soon avoid.

It would be easy, and perfectly legitimate, to move at this point to this week’s gospel text, from Mark, one of several iterations of a story where Jesus is asked by a religious authority about the greatest, or most important, of the commandments in Torah. Jesus’s answer, which follows the prophets in pointing to the indissoluble connection of the command to love God to the very concrete obligation to love our neighbors – especially the most vulnerable among them – as ourselves. The pairing of these two “greatest” commandments certainly suggests some of the ways God’s covenants have legs.

Rather than comment on the gospel story, though, I’d like to look instead at the First Testament text, from the introduction to the book of Ruth, which quite beautifully shows the ways covenants have legs by offering an example of neighbor-love with far-reaching consequences. Interpreters generally agree that Ruth was written during the Second Temple period (ca. 530 BCE–70 CE), as a narrative defense of Jewish intermarriage at a time when the matter was a hotly contested question. By showing that the eponymous protagonist of the story, who was not Jewish, was an ancestor of King David, the author looks to be making a claim about the possibilities afforded by intermarriage – or so say the interpreters. I wonder, though, whether reducing the book of Ruth to an apologia overlooks what it might teach us about graciousness and neighbor-love.

The outlines of the story are familiar to most readers: During the time of the Judges (ca. 12th century BCE), Israel experienced significant famine. A Judean couple, Elimilech and Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, immigrated to neighboring Moab, which is part of present-day Jordan. With the passing of time, Naomi experienced terrible hardship; her husband, and then her sons, who had married Moabite women, all died, leaving her in a position of extreme vulnerability with no visible means of support. Without a real alternative, she began the journey back to Judea, accompanied initially by her daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth.

Naomi knew the three were returning to Israel as de facto immigrants who would be radically dependent on the kindness of strangers, and saw no good reason that the younger women should leave behind the security of their extended Moabite families and share her precarious future. After thanking them for their kindness, she offered her blessing and ordered them to stay in Moab. Although both women initially resisted out of loving concern for Naomi, she was eventually able to persuade Orpah. Ruth, however, refused to leave Naomi’s side. Rejecting the security of the familiar, she bound herself to Naomi and her uncertain future with the oft-quoted declaration: “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried. May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

Readers familiar with the book of Ruth know that the story, notwithstanding its discomfiting gender politics, is comedic in the classical sense; Ruth found favor with a wealthy distant relative of Naomi, married him, made certain that Naomi would be cared for, and bore a son who would become the grandfather of David. Certainly the hospitality and respect for levirate custom shown by Ruth’s benefactor and husband, Boaz, is an important element in the narrative, one that solidly exemplifies the legs of the Covenant.

At least as instructive, though, is the example of Ruth, whose steadfast love for her mother-in-law led her to turn away from the little security she had to bind herself to Naomi. In a time such as our own, when those unlike us, including the conspicuously weak and vulnerable, are increasingly depicted as enemies to be opposed with whatever violence is necessary, we should take seriously the examples set – by Boaz, certainly, and even more by Ruth. For the covenant by which we have bound ourselves calls upon us to see the vulnerable – widows, orphans, and strangers – not as threats to be feared or harmed, but as neighbors to be loved through generous hospitality and advocacy. May we be faithful to this good work.

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