Tuesday, October 12, 2021

October 31, 2021 - 23rd Sunday after Pentecost

                                                       Biblical Words                                          [740]

Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Migrants and pilgrims, in old lands and new, find renewal and liberation in their journeys. 

Ruth 1:1-18. 

The reading from the Hebrew scriptures is the first part of the Book of Ruth.  This is one of the most familiar and beloved stories of the Bible – presenting personal lives touched by tragedy, deep feelings of attachment, and community relations of concern and support for the working poor. 

Ruth had linked her life to immigrants and herself became an immigrant. 

As a young woman in her native land, she had married an immigrant.  The marriage made her part of a family in which the men and the mother-in-law were foreigners living in her country, with only her sister-in-law Orpah a native of her own land.  Though their marriages lasted less than ten years and produced no children, they fostered strongly bonded relationships.  These relationships were tested after the death of the men, when the three women were left as widows, dependent on charity and without future hope. 

The drama of our reading is the parting of the women, and particularly Ruth’s refusal to leave Naomi, her mother-in-law.  Naomi must return to Bethlehem in Judah, where her only kinship connections are, and where she can live as a needy widow.  This is not a fate her daughters-in-law should have to share, and she sends them back to their mothers.  So far it is a normal, if tragic, story. 

What is extraordinary is Ruth’s refusal to part from Naomi.  Her vow of deathless attachment to Naomi (verses 16-17) is not ordinary.  This avowal makes her an immigrant, commits her to a new ethnic identify, to a new God, and to a new land, which will become her burial place.  Because of her love for Naomi, Ruth converts to a new people and faith, and ties her destiny inextricably to Naomi’s. 

Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah.
William Blake (1757-1827).  
Courtesy of Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

The grandeur of this love is breathtaking – and, as the book intends to show, makes Ruth a woman of destiny for her adopted land and its great king to come (David). 

Psalm 146. 

Reading Psalm 146 after the Ruth selection expands the horizons. 

This is a hymn of praise to the God to whom Ruth committed herself in her vow to Naomi.  The central parts of the psalm are a wisdom instruction (verses 3-4), a blessing on those who depend on the Lord (verses 5-7b), and a declaration of the character of this God (verses 7c-9).  Two points especially link with the situation of Ruth. 

First, the fallibility of human supports for life:  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help” (verse 3, NRSV).  Why?  Because they are mortal:  “When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish” (verse 4).  Such was the situation of the three widows after their husbands had died in Moab.  Ultimate trust can only be placed in the Lord. 

Secondly, the particular objects of care and protection of this God are those such as Naomi and Ruth:  “The Lord watches over the strangers [gērīm, “sojourners,” immigrants], he upholds the orphan and the widow…” (verse 9).  In the story of Ruth it remains to be seen how such care from God may be worked out, but this declaration of faith is the sort of thing Naomi might have heard among the faithful around Bethlehem.  So, at least, these readings suggest. 

Hebrews 9:11-14. 

The Epistle reading approaches the most esoteric aspects of Jesus Christ as heavenly high priest and his sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.  Rather than worry over the details of ritual involved in the argument, let’s take a broader perspective on the writer’s message. 

One of the priestly actions referred to in this passage is the annual Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) ritual.  (The instructions for Aaron – and subsequent high priests – to follow for this ritual are given in Leviticus 16.)  This was a series of ritual actions carried out on the 10th day of the seventh month at the Jerusalem temple on behalf of all Judeans everywhere in the world.  “This shall be an everlasting statute for you, to make atonement for the people of Israel once in the year for all their sins” (Leviticus 16:34, NRSV). 

Greek-speaking Judean scholars in Alexandria or Ephesus, or Aramaic-speaking scholars in Damascus or Babylon, even if they were never able to visit Jerusalem, knew that their relation to the Lord of the universe was restored by that atoning action of the priest in Jerusalem. 

This universalist perspective – that the action of the high priest in Jerusalem affected the well-being of all Judeans everywhere – is assumed in our writer’s statements about Jesus as high priest.  In this new revelation, another sacrifice has been made, in a way that fulfilled the old requirements but now also in a way that transcends the old limitations of time and place.  This unique cosmic sacrifice affects people scattered throughout the world. 

That once-for-all sacrifice opens new possibilities of living as pilgrims moving from Sinai to the new Zion of the promised land.  This new pilgrimage leaves behind old modes of religion and creates new communities of faith and mutual support.  The writer urges the hearers to recognize the vastness of this new salvation and to keep faith through the trials of their wilderness journey. 

Mark 12:28-34. 

The Gospel reading is one of the episodes by which Jesus’ authority as a teacher of the people is challenged and tested in Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and the Last Supper.  These tests are public encounters with, or pronouncements about, the Judean power structure or its representatives.  (The episodes from 11:15 through 12:44 make up this theme.) 

Our reading is remarkable because it is the one case where Jesus and a scribe come to complete agreement – and agreement about truly fundamental matters.  Jesus seals this outcome by saying, “You are not far from the kingdom of God,” and the Gospel writer comments, “After that no one dared to ask him any question” (12:34, NRSV).  The time of argumentative battle and testing was over. 

What Jesus and the scribe agree upon, of course, are the essentials of Judaism – the greatest commandment, and the one “like unto it.” 

The text is rather wordy, having Jesus quote the commandments fully, and then having the scribe, in agreement, summarize what Jesus has just said.  The scribe’s summary is interesting in its own right.  “…you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”  (12:32-33).  That concluding statement is an addition:  Jesus had not mentioned the priority of the commandments over the obligation to bring sacrifices and offerings. 

We can be sure that the priestly families would not have agreed with this scribe’s summary. 

The basic premise of the Mosaic legislation is that there is one supreme holy place where every Israelite’s relation to God is focused and determined, and that place was an altar for animal sacrifices.  Scrupulous obedience to that legislation – with all its sacrifices, tithes, and holy times – is the absolute requirement for Israel’s hope of righteousness before the Lord. 

On the other hand, the agreement between Jesus and the scribe, as paraphrased by the scribe, offers a glimpse of a great prospect on the future for Judaism and Christianity. 

The religions of the word and of faith will replace the religions of blood sacrifices and exclusionary atonement rituals.  

On the side of Judaism, historical necessity – the permanent destruction of the Jerusalem temple – forced the break with the old priestly past.  On the side of Christianity, that break was made with the help of a new vision of sacrifice, producing such writings as the Letter to the Hebrews. 

A new age in human religiousness was emerging in the Hellenistic-Roman world, and this scribe – in agreement with Jesus – was naming the new reality. 

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