The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, October 31, 2021

The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost
October 31, 2021
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Book of Ruth,(Ruth said) ‘Where you go, I will go.’” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     I think it a safe assumption that for most here this morning, while this text from Ruth is familiar, we only seem to hear it read aloud at weddings. Ruth’s deep commitment to embrace her mother-in-law, Naomi’s home, religion, and way of life does sound like a good beginning, a well-laid foundation, for a lifetime of mutual commitment promised by a newly married couple. So, in the context of a wedding, this story of commitment seems to describe the best of times, or that best is yet to come. And yet, that is not the context of Ruth’s experience at all. In fact, what appears on the surface to be a quaint little story in which the main characters (Ruth, Naomi, and then, Boaz) do everything right is not born out of the best of times, but rather, in the midst of famine, in the midst of devastating loss. No, it is not the best of times. It is the worst of times. And in that context the friendship between Ruth and Naomi is made not only more remarkable, but speaks directly to us and to all people of faith still today.

     Our story opens with Elimelech, his wife, Naomi, and their sons, Mahlon, and Chilion, in an effort to escape famine, leaving their homes in Bethlehem and traveling to Moab in search of food. Now, we need to remember that historically, there was deep strife between the peoples of Moab and Judah (Bethlehem’s country). In fact, they despised each other because Moabites were the descendants of Lot’s incestuous union with his daughters. This religious and cultural situation is important to the story because sometime after arriving in Moab, Elimelech dies, and Naomi’s sons take two Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth as their wives. Nevertheless, this family of refugees, of immigrants, somehow adjusted to their “new normal.” But then both sons died leaving all three women destitute and desperate.

     Then word comes that there is bread in Judah and Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem. Recognizing that her daughters-in-law – both of them Moabites and neither of whom is pregnant – will probably be shunned as outcasts in Judah, Naomi suggests that they stay behind. Orpah agrees but Ruth is determined to stay with Naomi and create a new life for herself in Judah. Her affirmation to live, die, and worship in Naomi’s homeland affirms her commitment. She says, “Where you go, I will go.” And the end result of her commitment will change the world! Ruth will become the great-grandmother of King David. The cultural and religious norms of their day that should have separated these women and forever divided them evaporated simply because they were willing to embrace each other in spite of their differences and not just tolerate each other, but make room – a welcome room - for each other, not only in their hearts, but in their lives, their communities.

     Tomorrow is All Saints’ Day. And while we will celebrate that beloved Feast of the Christian Church next Sunday and recommit ourselves to walking in the footsteps of that great Communion of Saints, our story from Ruth, as well as our other lessons this morning, invite us to pause and reflect upon what that commitment requires of us right now.

     In today’s reading from Hebrews, we are reminded that Jesus Christ offered himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. He offered himself once and for all time, in order that all people – Moabites, too, or any other people we might look down upon today – He offered himself so that all people may be forgiven and made children of God, not through their adherence to a set of cultural or religious rules and norms, but through his sacrifice on the cross. To that end, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, Jesus continues to forever intercede on humanity’s behalf as a great high priest in the very presence of God – a high priest for all who believe and put their trust in him, a high priest for all people, and for all time.

     In our reading from the Gospel according to Mark, we find a different encounter between Jesus and the religious authorities of Jerusalem. Until now, every question from these opponents to Jesus’ message has been confrontational. But today, a scribe steps forward and asks a sincere question, “Which commandment is the greatest of all.” The concern behind his question is just like that of the rich young man we heard about earlier: How can one lead a life of moral integrity? That concern can only be answered by a thorough and wise understanding and practical application of the Torah, of God’s law. Jesus’ response demonstrates that he knows the Torah very well and this is an important part of this encounter.

Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 as the first, the greatest, “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.” But then Jesus goes on saying, “The second is this” and quotes from Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” He concludes, “There is no other commandment greater than these.” Do you see what’s going here? Jesus has linked loving God  - something that none of those religious leaders would dispute – to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In so saying, he has lifted our responsibility for the welfare of our neighbors above all other duties and obligations including – dare I say it? – religious ones. Keeping in mind that this exchange occurred in the courtyard of the Temple just days before Passover adds even more depth to the scribe’s astounding response when he says, “You are right, teacher, to love (God) with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’ — is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” I don’t know about you, but I hear a gasp from the scribe’s colleagues. See he didn’t just say loving one’s neighbor is more important, but much more important than anything else one’s religion might require. It is to the scribe’s affirmation of the importance of love that Jesus responds, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” You know, the very kingdom that Jesus proclaimed in Mark 1:15, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near.”

     Love. Love is a powerful word – not just for us today although we do tend to romanticize it – but especially in scripture. And to hear it within the context of being first or greatest as Jesus suggested can be a bit confusing because being first in scripture is not about winning a race, but rather, about being the first stone laid – the cornerstone – upon which all the other stones must rest. Thus, the greatness of the love commandment is not that it is of greater value than all the other commandments of Jewish law but, rather, that it holds up all the rest. See, the word used here for love is the Greek word agape. And at its heart, agape love means putting the “other” first. That is what Jesus did at Calvary and it is what we – what all the Saints – are called to do every day. And that putting the other first – no matter who or what they may be – is countercultural for us because it breaks all the rules about who is welcome, who is worthy, whom we should embrace and make room for in our lives.

Lutheran pastor Amy Lindeman Allen in her commentary on this exchange between Jesus and the scribe writes, “Acting with agape love as our first commandment means stepping back from whatever other codes of conduct or moral laws dictate our personal ethics and asking first, What does this mean for my neighbor? Or, even more potently, Is this me giving myself to my neighbor? Is this me giving myself to my God? To put love of God and neighbor first means not just to act according to what we think is best for our neighbor, but rather, act in such a way that we give our very self to our neighbor and to our God —and to let that be the foundation upon which everything else is built.” (Amy L. Allen, The Politics of the Greatest Commandment – Mark 12:23-34, Oct 26, 2015)

     Beloved, imagine a society where every dollar spent, every cup of water poured, every hungry mouth filled, every decision made was based not upon what’s in it for me, but what does this mean for my neighbor. The world would be changed, changed completely. And therein lies the challenge for people of faith every day.

     Ruth said, “Where you go, I will go” not knowing where that commitment would lead, or require of her. Jesus says that to go with him requires walking in his way of agape love that must become the cornerstone, the foundation of everything we are and everything we do and say, and for, and to, everyone we meet – even the Moabites we encounter in our life journeys. Who knows, by embracing them and making room for them like Naomi, by loving our neighbor as our own selves, we might discover another Ruth. By God’s grace may that be so. Amen.