Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost
As a child of the 1970’s who is deeply in touch with my feminist rage, the book of Ruth has always been a challenge to me. And most of the time, like this week’s text limiting the story to Ruth begging to stay with Naomi, we prefer to focus on the beauty of Ruth’s love for Naomi and on her willingness to abandon her own culture, her own people and her own gods in favor of the God of Israel. But for me, too much of this story relies upon three women stuck in a patriarchal society who face possible starvation and absolutely certain hardship, not because they were lazy or incapable, but simply because they had the misfortune (or strength?) to outlive all the male breadwinners in their family.
As we walk with Naomi through the brief details of her life provided in this week’s text, we can choose to see the sources of her economic and social vulnerability if we trace the story carefully. First with her husband and sons, Naomi endures the horror of a famine in Judah, causing the family to flee from Bethlehem into Moab. Next, with little description of the details, we see hints of the cultural challenges introduced by their sons choosing Moabite wives, Orpah and Ruth, quite possibly because there were no suitable women for them to marry. At this point, life seems difficult and far from ideal, certainly not what they dreamed for themselves, but manageable.
It is the death of first her husband and ultimately both of her sons in Moab that exposes her vulnerability when Naomi is left alone with her two daughters in law with seemingly no recourse but to return to her own people in Judah. She is a stranger in a strange land in which she has no legal standing, no extended family, and no social structures to support her. The only thing she knows to do is to go home to Judah where she hears the Lord has had compassion on His people and has resumed providing food. In Judah, she can hope that her people will remember her and welcome her home.
But even if the folks back home do not remember her, Naomi clings to the hope that through His people, the Lord will provide for her as promised (Psalm 146:7, 9) for it is the Lord “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry…The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.” Naomi dares to trust in these promises. And although Naomi’s God is not a god that Ruth grew up with, she dares to trust in Naomi’s faith that provision will be made to them through God’s people. So, against many odds, they weep, they embrace, and Ruth makes promises she does not truly understand. And then they begin the painful, dangerous journey home with no male relatives to protect them or provide for them.
It is perhaps difficult for us to fully empathize with Naomi’s situation from our comparatively comfortable contemporary position. Regardless of the critiques we might justly level at our own governments, our own communities, and our own extended families, today’s orphans and widows (and single parent households) at least have something to catch them when extended family and community resources fail them, as imperfect as those social systems are. I have heard a few scathing critiques of Naomi’s bitterness, most often from people who have never known the terror of Naomi’s situation or the powerless position she was in as a woman. Rather than judging Naomi harshly, we ought to commend her ingenuity, her deep faith in God’s provision and her willingness to release all she had left by encouraging her daughters in law to return to their own families instead of obliging them to stay with her which was her right. I doubt that any of us are capable of much more than this under these excruciating conditions and heartbreak.
If you have read the rest of the story in the book of Ruth, you know that ultimately it is Naomi’s clever and daring scheme to marry Ruth off to Boaz that really saves the day. While Naomi is described as bitter and despondent (perhaps even clinically depressed in her grief and trauma), Boaz is framed as the good guy who does right by poor Ruth, who we already know to be a remarkable young woman and to boot, Ruth seems to have been an attractive choice for Boaz if we read between the lines. So, Ruth and Boaz get to live happily ever after in newly wedded bliss. All’s well that ends well, right?
Well, maybe. What the story does not reveal is how Naomi and Ruth were received when they arrived home exhausted, starving, and alone. There is no evidence that anyone threw open their door, butchered the fattened calf, and had a party for them. There is no mention of them being given shelter or protection of any kind. And friends, this is a problem.
But here again, Naomi shows her deep understandings of the Hebraic societal laws when she sends Ruth to glean in her husband’s relative’s field, for gleaning was a protected practice instituted by the Lord for widows just like Naomi. And Ruth is quick to see how she can be discovered by Boaz as she gleans in his fields. And our hero, Boaz, makes everything easier by getting drunk after a harvest celebration and waking up to find this pretty young widow in his bed.
And while we mostly choose to see the charming parts of this love story, what we often miss is that Boaz and his neighbors failed to notice two starving widows in their midst and failed to offer food and shelter as the Lord commanded his people to offer widows and strangers among them. Quite simply, the story did not have to go this way, but it did because it was easier for people to turn a blind eye, to leave the edges of the fields to these women and hope that they would be content to ask for nothing more.
But Naomi, even in deep grief and pain, chooses again and again to dare to hope in God’s provision for Ruth and for herself. And the Lord allows circumstances to work out as Naomi hoped. The Lord goes one step further and affirms the faith and daring of Naomi and Ruth by including them in the direct lineage of King David and ultimately, Jesus. And that is seriously beautiful. But for us today, I think the challenge is to learn from the failures in the communal systems and covenantal expectations for the ways that strangers and those without families to be welcomed into our communities and cared for generously. If Naomi and Ruth wandered into your neighborhood, what welcome might they find? We are called to heed the wisdom of Jesus, who declared when asked what that the greatest commandment is, answered,
The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12: 29-31).
And if we learn to dare to heed these words faithfully, perhaps we too will be “not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34).
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; [he] is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”
I always understood this to be a reference to scripture as the “word of God.” I am not sure that I do anymore. Recently, I have come to apply the Johannine use of the term “logos,” which is translated here as “word,” to hear this passage as a reference, not to the text of scripture, but rather to Christ, the Word of God.
I suppose one could argue with the integrity of that decision, supposing that the Johannine use of “logos” does not necessarily make its way into the other books of the New Testament. But the rest of our reading from Hebrews also gives us reason to think it is referring to Jesus, seeing that the following verse (13) speaks of a person, using personal pronouns and the phrase “the one to whom we must render account.” Similarly, the following, well-known passage from Hebrews speaks directly of Jesus, our “Great High Priest.” The one who judges thoughts and intentions of the heart is also the one who is able to sympathize with them.
For this reason, I believe the author of Hebrews is speaking of Jesus, and it makes even more sense as we see this two-edged sword do its work on the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospel reading from Mark 10:17-31. Here we see a pious man conflicted in his loyalty, perhaps unable to discern his own thoughts and intentions, and the call of Jesus will act with surgical precision in an attempt to divide a masked-but-unclean spirit from this beloved soul.
Willie Jennings, commenting on Karl Barth’s exegesis of this passage, points to the posture and piety of this young man as he approaches Jesus, kneeling and honoring Jesus by calling him “good”. He is, as Jennings says, the “properly formed religious subject.” That is, he makes the right gestures and even admits to a life of righteous behavior after Jesus names the commandments of the “second table,” those directed at love of neighbor.
Here is where, however, the two-edged sword begins to split soul from the spirit that possesses the Rich Young Ruler: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The devastation of the Rich Man at this instruction reveals both his wealth (for we have not known of it until this point in the reading) and of his absolute devotion the unclean spirit of wealth accumulation. Christ has called the man into covenant partnership, and, as Jennings says, “The rich man already has a covenant partner: mammon.” The man is not only ruled by this unholy covenant partner, but we are also led to ask whether his religious formation and right observation of the law were funded by this greater devotion to Mammon. Could his financial security be the bedrock of his religious mastery, with Mammon then being the great provider for the possibility of his religious devotion?
Jennings gives us these questions to ponder, while also pointing to the invitation of Jesus as a direct challenge to the lordship of Mammon in the life of the Rich Man:
The Rich Man’s theological mastery is resourced by his financial mastery, and he is being asked by Jesus to exercise that mastery in offering up both to God and neighbor…The man through his giving will have treasure in heaven and thereby begin the reorientation of his life through an alternative financial calculus. That alternative financial calculus is aimed concretely at the poor as the new point of coordination for wealth. It is in exactly how the poor and disadvantaged are helped that shows love of neighbor and constitutes the material conditions for the transformation of the rich man.
Jesus speaks to the Rich Man in love, asking him to follow him – to join him in covenant partnership and signify this partnership through the redistribution of his possessions to the poor – the very neighbors he has apparently neglected to serve in the course of his pious observation of the Law. For, his law observance was always subject to the call of Mammon and that unholy pursuit, grounded in the Lordship of wealth and service in that temple. Jesus is beckoning him toward a different pursuit, one that redirects wealth and possessions toward a shared life with Jesus and the poor who will inherit his Kingdom. Thus, there is Good News to be shared with the Rich, as Saint Oscar Romero has said, “that they, too, become poor in order to share the benefits of the Kingdom with the poor.”
But this severing of the spirit of Mammon from the soul of the Rich Man proves to be too difficult for him, and the Word of God has laid him naked and bare before the other disciples and, perhaps, to himself for the first time. This man only feels the love of Christ as judgment, and the invitation to covenant partnership, to discipleship, reveals just how tightly his identity is bound to the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth. Again, Jennings is spot on in his lecture:
By calling the rich man to covenant partnership, Jesus has killed him. He has killed him by bringing him into [Jesus’] own life – his obedience to God his father and his life in the Spirit. God confronts the rich man with a death that leads to life. If no one can see God and live, then the rich man is now looking at God asking him to die.
This is nothing less than the call to discipleship, and we stand with the disciples asking Jesus the same question, “Then who can be saved?” Their question reveals their own temptation toward the pursuit of mammon, and it should resonate with us as we navigate a world where financial pragmatism and “stewardship” is measured by acquisition, accumulation, and growth. We are asked with the disciples, “Who are you trying to become? The Rich Man? Or the One who bears the cross in solidarity with the poor?”
The gate of the Kingdom is as narrow as a needle’s eye for those burdened with the heap of accumulated wealth. If the church is to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus and the Spirit of Grace, wealth must be shared and distributed as each has need so that no one is so burdened at the entrance of the Kingdom that they cannot easily pass through the narrow gate that leads to life abundant.
1 Quoted from the NRSV, with the article changed from “it” to “he” in 4:12b. There is not article in the Greek text; it is an addition to the English translation.
2 Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way, 34-35. Jersak’s experience recounted on those pages mapped onto my own, and I am grateful to him for exposing this as simply as he does in this book.
3 The bulk of my reflections on this passage stem from a lecture I heard years ago and return to regularly. The lecture is titled, “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler,” and it was given at the annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary by Willie James Jennings. The audio/video of the lecture is no longer available online, but it seems to have been published under the same title in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth.
4 Oscar Romero, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love,” Commonweal, March 26, 1982. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/archives-political-dimension-christian-love.