Pentecost 23B (4 November 2012)



  • Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146 (or Deut 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8
  • Hebrews 9:11-14
  • Mark 12:28-34


First Reading: Ruth

The Book of Ruth is one of the most attractive short stories in the Bible, and also a story that celebrates the autonomy and freedom of women even when living within a clearly patriarchal society. Naomi and Ruth are individuals who take control of the situation in which they find themselves. For the most part circumstances require them to act in the absence of their menfolk and they are the dominant characters in the story.

Writing in the HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Adele Berlin observes:

According to rabbinic tradition, the main theme of Ruth is chesed, loyalty or faithfulness born of a sense of caring and commitment. Chesed is a Hebrew term used to describe God’s relationship to Israel as well as the relationship among members of a family or a community. All of the main characters in the book, Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, act with chesed. Naomi, although she technically had no responsibility for her widowed daughters-in-law, was concerned that they find new husbands; she went out of her way to see that Ruth did. Ruth, on her part, had no obligation to Naomi, but she remained steadfastly with her, even giving up her native land and religion; all of her actions were directed toward finding support and protection for Naomi. Boaz too took upon himself a commitment beyond what was required; not only was he willing to redeem the family’s land, but he was eager to marry Ruth and enable the family name to be perpetuated. God also manifested his chesed, by virtue of which the individuals are repaid for their loyalty by finding security and fulfillment, and the family that came close to destruction finds new life and continuity. (p. 262)

In the Greek Bible and later collections influenced by the Latin Vulgate, Ruth is found between Judges and 1 Samuel. This places the story in its natural setting prior to the development of a Jewish monarchy. Indeed, Ruth is identified at the end of the book as the great-grandmother of David.

In the Jewish Bible, Ruth is placed among the Megilloth (“Five Scrolls” – Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) used as liturgical texts for various festivals. Ruth is read on the Festival of Shavuot (Pentecost).

Within the RCL, Ruth provides the first reading this week and next.

Ruth is also a story about inclusion of the foreigner, and may originally have been crafted as a protest against the narrow theology that developed in the time of Ezra as the post-exilic Jewish community sought to ensure its own survival by excluding those without a specified pedigree. The “foreign wives” and their children were repudiated in a mass divorce ceremony (see Ezra 9-10).

In such a time of crisis some unknown “liberal” has penned this delightful story that celebrates the human dignity and theological virtue of a particular foreign wife, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth embodies the essential character of God (chesed, steadfast love—cf. Exod 34:6-7). In a striking protest at the theological thought police of the day, this ancient scribe notes that one of Ruth’s descendants would be none other than King David himself!

At a time in history when so many Christians are obsessed with the issues of gender identity and human sexuality, we may do well to reflect on the story of Ruth. Like gays and lesbians in our world, women and especially foreign women, were the focus for the projected self-loathing of the theological purists in Jerusalem. No matter how many biblical and canonical authorities may be invoked in support of prejudice and fear, the biblical tradition also celebrates inclusion and tolerance. Tolerance may be a minor theme in a Bible that also endorses genocide as divine justice on the tribe’s competitors, but it is there as a “light to the nations.” Like a candle flame on a dark night, the persistent affirmation of inclusion and tolerance may not penetrate far into the surrounding darkness, but it is an important signal of the Kingdom values we see embodied in Jesus.

When (spiritual) famine and (ecclesial) hardship compels us to find refuge and welcome beyond the traditional lands of the covenant community, we may find as Naomi did that there are beloved strangers living there who share our experience of being human and have much to offer us.

Are we able to open our community to include those we have previously imagined as frightening and dangerous? Will we know the blessing of hearing those who were once strangers say to us, “Your people shall be my people; your God my God.”

Deuteronomy 6 – the Shema

Both the RC and ECUSA lectionaries use the passage from Deuteronomy 6 for the first reading.

In doing so they present congregations with the living tradition of Judaism as the context for Jesus and also his teachings. It never hurts Christians to remember that everything Jesus said and did was as a Palestinian Jew whose understanding of God was nurtured by and expressed within Judaism.

The Shema (named after the first word in the original Hebrew form of this prayer) continues to be a key ingredient of Jewish identity and prayer, perhaps somewhat like the Lord’s Prayer in Christian circles.

The following passage from the Talmud illustrates how reflection on the essential Torah enriched Jewish piety:

Six hundred and thirteen commandments were given to Moses, three hundred and sixty-five negative ones, corresponding to the days of the solar year, and two hundred forty-eight positive commandments, corresponding to the parts of man’s body…
David came and reduced them to eleven: A Psalm of David [Psalm 15] Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tabernacle, and who shall dwell in thy holy mountain? (i) He who walks uprightly and (ii) works righteousness and (iii) speaks truth in his heart and (iv) has no slander on his tongue and (v) does no evil to his fellow and (vi) does not take up a reproach against his neighbor, (vii) in whose eyes a vile person is despised but (viii) honors those who fear the Lord. (ix) He swears to his own hurt and changes not. (x) He does not lend on interest. (xi) He does not take a bribe against the innocent,…
Isaiah came and reduced them to six [Isaiah 33:25–26]: (i) He who walks righteously and (ii) speaks uprightly, (iii) he who despises the gain of oppressions, (iv) shakes his hand from holding bribes, (v) stops his ear from hearing of blood (vi) and shuts his eyes from looking on evil, he shall dwell on high.
Micah came and reduced them to three [Micah 6:8]: It has been told you, man, what is good and what the Lord demands from you, (i) only to do justly, and (ii) to love mercy, and (iii) to walk humbly before God…’
Isaiah came again and reduced them to two [Isaiah 56:1]: Thus says the Lord, (i) keep justice and (ii) do righteousness.
Amos came and reduced them to a single one, as it is said, For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel, Seek Me and live.
Habakkuk further came and based them on one, as it is said [Habakkuk 2:4], But the righteous shall live by his faith.
— Talmud, b. Makkot, 24(a)
[cited in Jacob Neusner, The Way of Torah, 22]


Second Reading: Jesus as priest

Jesus as priest (the metaphor continues)

The major western lectionaries continue their reading of Hebrews this week:

  • RC: Heb 7:23-28
  • ECUSA: Heb 7:23-28
  • RCL: Heb 9:11-14

These selections all come from the central section of Hebrews (4:14-10:31) with its focus on Jesus as the eternal high priest:

4:14-5:10 Christ as “a great high priest”
5:11-6:20 Appeal for steadfast hope (“an anchor for the soul”)
7:1-28 Melchizedek as a superior order of priesthood
8:1-6 Jesus as the “more excellent” priest seated in divine glory
8:7-13 The new (and “better”) covenant mediated by Jesus
9:1-10 The limited and symbolic character of the tabernacle
9:11-28 Christ’s priestly action as “priest and victim”
10:1-18 Christ’s offering of himself “once for all”
10:19-31 Concluding appeal and warnings

This way of interpreting Jesus is distinctive within the NT.

Creative spiritual imagination is at work here. In our own time so much effort has been invested in determining precisely what Jesus “actually said” and what events “really happened.” Hebrews shows us a rather different approach to the questions, Who is Jesus? and, What am I called to do in response to him?

Is it possible that we have been seduced by the narrative format of the Gospels and have accorded them far more historicity than they require? Perhaps the Gospels, like the Letter to the Hebrews or the Book of Revelation, are better understood as imaginative expressions of what Jesus meant to some of his followers in the 1C rather than as historical descriptions of the man and his message?

To rephrase a question posed last week: How best do we honor the sage of Galilee? Is it by excluding one another on the basis of our differing historical assessments of the Gospels, or by fashioning lives and communities around his message?


Gospel: The Chief Commandment

Samuel T. Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 280f] notes that the form cited in Mark begins with the traditional opening phrase of the Shema (“Hear, O Israel …”). This may reflect the influence of Jewish devotional practices, since none of the other versions have that form. He also notes that the combination of Deut. 6.4 and Lev. 19.18 is already found in the Testament of Issachar and in the Testament of Dan. It is reasonable to assume that this combination was already commonplace in rabbinic teachings by the time of Jesus, since it combines the love of God with the love of others.

Testament of Issachar

Keep the Law of God, my children;
achieve integrity; live without malice,
not tinkering with God’s commands or your neighbor’s affairs.
Love God and your neighbor;
be compassionate toward poverty and sickness. (TIss 5:1-2) [OT Pseudepigrapha]

Testament of Dan

Observe the Lord’s commandments, then, my children,
and keep his law.
Avoid wrath,
and hate lying.
in order that the Lord may dwell among you,
and Beliar may flee from you.
each of you speak truth clearly to his neighbor,
and do not fall into pleasure and trouble making,
but be at peace, holding to the God of peace.
thus no conflict will overwhelm you.
Throughout all your life love the Lord,
and one another with a true heart. (TDan 5:1-3) [OT Pseudepigrapha]

David Flusser, a Jewish scholar with a major interest in NT studies comments:

Jesus’ saying about the double commandment of love was clearly coined before his time. … both verses from the Bible (Deut. 6:5 and Lev, 19:18) begin with the same word. It was typical of rabbinic scholarship to see similarly phrased passages from the Bible as connected in content also. The first great commandment of Jesus—love of God—was thus in harmony with the spirit of contemporary Pharisaism. … the double commandment of love existed in ancient Judaism before, and alongside, Jesus. The fact that it does not appear in the rabbinical documents that have come down to us is probably accidental. Mark (12:28-34) and Luke (10:25-28) show that on the question of “the great commandment” Jesus and the scribes were in agreement. [Jesus, 89f]

The commentary in The Five Gospels (104f) notes the secondary character of the narrative framework for each version of this saying in the Gospels: a friendly scribe in Matthew, a hostile scribe in Mark, and as a prelude to the parable of the Samaritan in Luke. This passages provides a classic example of the function of a Gray result in the Jesus Seminar’s deliberations:

The majority of the Fellows thought that the ideas in this exchange represented Jesus’ own views; the words, however, were those of the young Jesus movement. Those Seminar members who voted pink argued that Jesus might have affirmed the interpretation of the law given by Hillel, a famous rabbi who was a contemporary of Jesus:

A proselyte approached Hillel with the request Hillel teach him the whole of the Torah while the student stood on one foot. Hillel responded, “What you find hateful do not do to another. This is the whole of the Law. Everything else is commentary. Now go learn that!”

Tarif Khalidi [The Muslim Jesus] records the following version of this tradition in Muslim literature:

/170/ Jesus said to his disciples, “The sign that you shall use to recognize each other as my followers is your affection for one another.” And Jesus said to his disciple Yashu’, “As for the Lord, you must love Him with all your heart. Then you must love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus was asked, “Show us, Spirit of God, what difference there is between these two loves, so that we may prepare ourselves for them with clarity of vision.” Jesus replied, “You love a friend for your own sake and you love your soul for the sake of your Lord. If you take good care of your friend, you are doing so for your own sake, but if you give your soul away, you do so for the sake of your Lord.” [Eleventh century]

Whether or not Jesus said these words, he lived and died within the Jewish tradition that imbued him with precisely this set of values. They are values seen in his own passionate embrace of God’s call upon his life. For Christians, Jesus is the one who did not simply teach the double commandment, but actually embodied it.

Jesus Database


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.

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