- Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (or 1Kings 17:8-16 & Psalm 146)
- Hebrews 9:24-28
- Mark 12:38-44
First Reading: Ruth and Boaz
The two excerpts from Ruth that serve as the first reading in the RCL, provide the book ends for this critical part of the story:
3:1-5 Naomi instructs Ruth how to secure her future with Boaz
3:6-15 Ruth spends the night with Boaz
3:16-18 Ruth reports the events of the night to Naomi
4:1-6 Boaz negotiates for the right to marry Ruth
4:7-12 Boaz gains the legal responsibility for Ruth as a childless kinswoman
4:13-17 Boaz marries Ruth
4:18-22 Davidic genealogy
This story reflects ancient customs, some of them no longer practiced at the time the account was composed:
- matters of inheritance, marriage and other social obligations were settled in open discussion with the elders of the community (cf: Exod 3:16; Deut 19:12; 22:15; 25:7; Josh 24;1; 1Sam 16:4) “seated at the gates of the city” (cf: Deut 21:19f; 22:15; 25:7; Josh 20:4; Isa 29:21; Amos 5:15)
- the selection of 10 elders reflects traditions that a synagogue required 10 adult males, as the letters of the Hebrew word for congregation (qahal) have a numerical value of ten
- symbolic use of dusty sandals as a public shaming ritual (cf: the words of Jesus in Mark 6:7-13, and in recent events in the Middle East with the treatment of a fallen statue of Sadam Hussein by residents of Baghdad and the throwing of a shoe at the then US President George W Bush by an Iraqi journalist)
The traditions preserved in Deut 25:5-10 provides the legal basis for this transaction:
When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, “I have no desire to marry her,” then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, “This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.” Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.”
As neither Boaz nor the anonymous kinsman are actual brothers of Ruth’s dead husband, neither has an obligation to marry Ruth and raise up children for Mahlon.
The legal transaction that lies at the heart of this story may be offensive to us. However, in the context of a patriarchal society, levirate marriage seems to have served as a social security safety net to provide for women who were widowed before having sons that might take possession of the family property and care for them in their own turn.
Such a story may also prompt us to think about the inevitability of the Gospel being expressed within and through the cultural context of a given period of time, even if (like the Book of Ruth) it challenges and confronts contemporary practices and prejudices. We can never escape our cultural context to hold a timeless expression of some “pure religion.”
The Widow of Zarephath
The RC and ECUSA lectionaries both draw on the story a desperately poor widow in 1 Kings 17 for the first reading.
This story links with the Gospel but also illustrates the plight that widows such as Naomi and Ruth typically faced in the ancient world.
The needs of people without recognized social protection were understood within the religion of ancient Israel and Judah. The protection of widows and orphans, along with the resident alien and the poor, was considered to be the particular concern of Israel’s God. The prophetic tradition within ancient Israelite religion kept alive the vision of a just society in which the most vulnerable were protected.
In the Epilogue to his massive study, The Birth of Christianity, John Dominic Crossan cites Psalm 82 as “the single most important text in the entire Christian Bible” while noting that “it comes, of course, from the Jewish Bible.”
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!
… that short psalm best summarizes for me the character of the Jewish God as Lord of all the world. It imagines a mythological scene in which God sits among the gods and goddesses in divine council. Those pagan gods and goddesses are all dethroned not just because they are pagan, nor because they are other, nor because they are competition. They are dethroned for injustice, for divine malpractice, for transcendental malfeasance in office. They are rejected because they do not demand and effect justice among the peoples of the earth. And that justice is spelled out as protecting the poor from the rich, protecting the systematically weak from the systematically powerful. Such injustice creates darkness over the earth and shakes the very foundations of the world. (Birth of Christianity, p. 575)
Second Reading: Jesus – eternal priest in an otherworldly temple
The lectionaries all converge for the second reading as they continue the current series of readings from Hebrews.
In a passage such as this we can observe Christian theology in the process of being developed under the impetus of a powerful metaphor. Despite Jesus’ own antipathy to the Temple and to its functionaries, this community of first-century Christians is actively developing a priestly (re-)interpretation of Jesus using categories drawn from the Jewish cult.
The significance of Jesus’ death is being understood in sacrificial terms, as with Paul in a passage such as Romans 3:21-26. However, unlike Paul, this writer opts to imagine Jesus as the priest rather than simply as the victim. here we see the origins of the priest-victim metaphor that was to prove so powerful in later theology.
Some Christian traditions continue to find such imagery meaningful, but for others the image is too far removed from present experience. The very idea of sacrifice to appease God and secure some divine blessing seems inadequate, if not offensive.
Gospel: The widow’s gift
This week’s Gospel for all three major Western lectionaries features the story of Jesus observing a poor widow making her offering at the temple, and commending her gift above the large donations made by the powerful and wealthy (Mark 12:41-44).
Such a story really does embody the core Kingdom values that Jesus himself taught and practiced. It challenges our (sometimes hollow?) affirmations of a value system that places the worth of persons above any calculation of the contribution they are able to make toward our shared projects. We say that the thought counts more than the gift, but do we practice that set of values?
One of the places in the life of Church where such a Kingdom dynamic is still celebrated is the Baptism of an infant. In the church as in life generally, a baby calls forth from us the very best of the human spirit. We do not look to an infant to provide us with anything, to contribute to our pet projects, or even to attend to us. We lay no expectations upon them and we appreciate them simply for being who they are.
The story of the widow’s gift is a simple story that celebrates that kind of uncomplicated devotion to God.
Samuel Lachs (Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament, 375) offers some Jewish perspectives on this story:
The importance of this passage is best summed up in the rabbinic saying,
“It does not matter whether your offering be much or little,
so long as your heart is directed to Heaven.” [M.Men. 13:11]
There is a story of a woman who brought a handful of meal as an offering. A priest despised it and said, “See what they offer! What is in it that one could eat, and what is in it that can be sacrificed?” It was shown to him in a dream., “Do not despise her; it is as if she has sacrificed herself [Heb. nafshah] as the sacrifice.” If in regard to one who does not sacrifice himself, the text uses nefesh [soul], how much more of one who does! [Lev. R. 3:5]
What is the peculiarity of the meal offering that nefesh is used [Lev 2.1]? Who brings the meal offering? The poor. ‘I reckon it,” says God, “as if he has offered himself before ME.” [Yal. Lev. 447]
God prefers the one handful of a free-will offering of the poor to the heap of incense which is offered by the high priest.” [Koh. R. 4:6]
It can be helpful for Christians to recognize and appreciate the convergence of Jewish and Christian piety here, and especially in view of the negative stereotyping of Jewish religious leaders (“the scribes”) in verses 28-40.
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site.
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.