Friday, October 22, 2021

November 7, 2021 - 24th Sunday after Pentecost

 Biblical Words                              [741]

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

The widows – and others in need – find redeemers, in spite of the pride and prejudices of the great. 

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17.   

The story of Ruth moves through its complications and dramatic climax – though our reading includes only a couple of key scenes. 

The two widows, an older wise one and a younger attractive one, have devoted themselves to finding a livelihood and some future prospect in Bethlehem.  Ruth has worked hard in the grain fields, gleaning with the other poor women.  By chance – or otherwise – she works in the field of Boaz, the one well-to-do relative of Naomi in Bethlehem.  Attracting Boaz’s attention leads to more and more favorable working conditions (developed in chapter 2), and Ruth prospers until the end of the grain harvest.  That is where our reading picks up. 

Naomi devises a daring plan.  She sends Ruth, scrubbed and perfumed, to sneak into Boaz’s bed that night after the harvest-end carousing is over.  She tells Ruth, When he discovers you, “he will tell you what to do” – that is, everything will be up to him! 

Our text does not elaborate, but here are the three possible outcomes of Naomi’s plan:  (1) he may throw you out as a slut, (2) he may take advantage of you and send you away in shame, or (3) he may grasp the opportunity you are offering him.  May God make it this last! 

Our selected reading does not narrate the outcome.  However, the details given in chapter 3 show Ruth improving her chances by telling Boaz about his distant kinship obligation to Naomi’s family.  Chapter 4 then shows us that Boaz chose door three:  he was wise and took Ruth as his wife. 

When Ruth has born a son, she fades into the background as grandmother Naomi takes over.  Naomi is grandly congratulated by the neighbor ladies of Bethlehem, who knew her back when, and the word goes out, “A son has been born to Naomi!”  Not to Ruth! 

One trusts that Ruth will also have her day – when she too becomes a grandmother, the grandmother of Jesse, father of the king-to-be, David. 

Psalm 127.  

The Psalm reading is a short wisdom or instruction piece, said to belong to Solomon.  (Psalm 72 also belongs to Solomon.)  The links to the Ruth story are not strong, but the psalm is about building houses and producing large families, especially numerous sons. 

The strong affirmation of the first part of the psalm is that unless a human enterprise is in harmony with God’s will, it won’t succeed.  This part concludes, almost with a smile, that anxiety and overwork will not help – which God demonstrates by giving his beloved one a good night’s sleep.  (This is the more likely meaning of verse 2b.) 

The second part of the psalm is a paean to having many sons.  We hear the values here of a tribal society in which the rights and opportunities of a tribe or clan depend on how many adult males are available to back its disputes.  The head of a large clan “shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (verse 5, NRSV). 

This is the society the Ruth story presupposes, and the widows are struggling throughout to have strong male advocates in the city gate.  Ruth’s descendant David, and especially Solomon (as portrayed in Psalm 72), represents the strong man who champions the rights of the weak and the poor – in God’s name, and under God’s ultimate supervision. 

Hebrews 9:24-28.  

The Epistle reading continues the climax in the presentation of the high priestly work of Jesus.  The passage emphasizes two things, the heavenly location of the completed work of Christ, and its once-for-all character.  The latter topic will be reiterated in next week’s Epistle reading, so only the first topic will be discussed here. 

“For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (verse 24, NRSV). 

The writer follows the hermeneutics of that time among Judeans of the Greek-speaking Diaspora:  the sacred text, which seems to speak about religious duties in the earthly world, is read as a guide to the non-earthly realities that make up true religion, and particularly the salvation from sin that all people seek. 

On the level of earthly realities, the high priest carried out the Day of Atonement rituals every year in Jerusalem, as prescribed in the Law of Moses.  On the level of the newly-revealed true religion, when Jesus died at Jerusalem on Good Friday, the earthquake that took place was a truly divine one:  it shook up relations between heaven and earth! 

The death, and then supremely the resurrection, opened the heavens for human approach to God in a way never before possible.  This death and resurrection of Jesus subsumed the old mechanism for forgiveness of sin.  On the level of earthly realities, the old religious practices are no longer needed; there is now a new access to the presence of God, the supreme heavenly reality. 

But the last part of our passage indicates that this great change is not just a heavenly reality:  it is an eschatological reality:  “…as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (verse 26).  There is still a stretch of time between this heavenly sacrifice of Jesus and the consummation of the age when Christ “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (verse 28). 

From a much later perspective, we are very interested in that interval.  How do the followers of Christ live through their remaining earthly realities after the heavenly sacrifice and before the end of the age?  Soon this becomes the Age of the Church, of course, and a wide world spreads out for the faithful who still await that consummation.  The writer really addresses this matter in the homilies on faith and on the pilgrimage from the holy mountain to the holy city, homilies which are given in chapters 11-13 (which appear as Lectionary readings for this season next year). 

Here, at the conclusion of Jesus’ high priestly work, we are sent forth to discover a new way in the world “outside the camp” (13:13), that is, outside the old familiar traditions and rituals of the ancestors. 

Mark 12:38-44.  

The Gospel reading presents a contrast between the pride of the self-righteous and the devotion of the poverty-stricken. 

First there is a brief but fierce condemnation of the scribes (verses 38-40).  In Matthew this will become the much longer litany marked by the cry, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” (Matthew 23:1-36).  As short as is Mark’s version, it summarizes the ways of self-important religious leaders:  wearing elaborate vestments, assuring that their titles are properly printed and correct protocols are observed in public events, taking pains to assure that seating and precedence are correct in services, and that the right people are placed at head tables at banquets (verses 38-39). 

In Jesus’ indictment, those who are so scrupulous about the etiquette of their ranks and prestige, maintain themselves by devouring widows’ houses.  After the bank in which he has stock has foreclosed the mortgage of a single-parent family now driven into homelessness, our hypocrite makes a point of leading the congregation in a particularly long prayer (verse 40). 

These are the mighty who cherish the ceremony more than the mercy. 

Having declared this condemnation of religious hypocrites, Jesus lifts up the poor widow’s offering as a supreme act of devotion to God (verses 41-44).  Here is another hard saying about wealth – hard especially for folks faced with getting church budgets to come out right about this time of year. 

Jesus acknowledges that many rich people put in large sums of money, but of the widow with her two cents he says, she “has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (verse 43).  In the eyes of God it is more, but it poses a dilemma for those paying the bills.  Jesus, it seems, would have no more patience with such concerns than he did about how the lilies grow and who feeds the birds. 

Speaking of feeding the birds, for a long time this poor widow has reminded me of the scene and the song of the Bird Woman in the musical “Mary Poppins.”  Outside the magnificent old marble towers and domes of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, seen in nocturnal shades and blue tints, the old woman sits selling grain for the pigeons – as Julie Andrews sings, “Feed the birds, feed the birds…”  There is something sentimental but radically right about the Bird Woman against the backdrop of the Cathedral, as there is about Jesus’ lifting up of the widow’s two cents. 

This scene contrasting the hypocritical mighty with the faithful poor stands at the end of Jesus’ public ministry.  There remain only the apocalypse (Mark 13) and the Passion (Mark 14-15). 

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