First Reading Ruth 1:1-18
Second Reading Hebrews 9:11-14
Gospel Reading Mark 12:28-34
Sermon: “Love: More Important than…”
Today gospel reading is a critically important text for our daily living. It simplifies the entire Old Testament message into just a few sentences. We have talked about the two great commandments before: the first one commands loving God with everything you are: mind body and soul. The second commands loving everyone as if they were an extension of yourself. These two commandments are the basis for living in the will of God for both ourselves and our elder brothers and sisters, the Jews. There is a fascinating line near the end of the passage that I want to bring particular focus to this morning as we reflect on all the things that might get in the way of those two simple sounding commandments. I say simple sounding because they are easy to hear and even to memorize, but learning to live them out consistently is the work of a lifetime. The phrase that caught my interest was the reply of the religious teacher – a scribe.
Here is his reply to Jesus: (Mark 12:32b-33 NLT) ”Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth by saying that there is only one God and no other. And I know it is important to love him with all my heart and all my understanding and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. This is more important than to offer all of the burnt offerings and sacrifices required in the law.” My attention, this week was down to those words “more important than…” what? Well, all the other stuff in the law of Moses and the prophets – sacrifices, ceremonies, offerings. These were the defining rituals and rules of the Jewish faith. Yet the scribe confesses that loving God and loving neighbor is more important. Dear friends, I have to tell you that we too let a whole lot of other stuff get in the way of loving God and loving neighbor. In pursuit of that theme, I want to instead tell you a story – a beautiful and very old story, told in the book of Ruth. You have likely heard it or at least parts of it before, but I wonder if you appreciate just how clearly it tells the story of love weaving through and sometimes even straight over the laws and customs of the day.
The little book of Ruth is a wonderful told story of faithfulness, loyalty, love and devotion from unexpected places. From this book we have the genealogy that traces David from the tribe of Judah and learn that his great grandmother was a Moabite. In this story we also see the ways several Old Testament laws were actually practiced, including the redemption of land, people and levirate marriage. We are not told exactly when this story occurs, only “in the time of the judges” and obviously during a time of peace between Moab and Israel. Faithfulness was a rare commodity in this period as most of the stories from the time of the Judges are of the people falling into disobedience. So this story serves as a refreshing example of faith and piety in the midst of an otherwise depressing recital of failures and religious degeneration. The major theme of this story is redemption (the word occurs 23 times) and it will also remind us of our redemption through the work of Jesus.
Part of the charm of the tale comes from understanding the various meanings of the names of the characters: Elimelech (Namomi’s husband): “my God is King” ; Naomi: “pleasant”; Her first son Mahlon: means “unhealthy” ; her second Kilion: means “puny” ; Ruth (difficult to be precise here):”friendship”, “personality” or “beauty”; Orpah: “deer or fawn”; Boaz means “strength”. Ironically, Bethlehem means “house of bread”, since the story begins with a famine. As a result, Elimelech takes his family over to land of Moab. This land was located on the east side of the dead sea and they were distant cousins of the Israelites – descended from Lot. Now Israel had many poor dealings with this people (recall Balak and Balaam in Numbers and King Eglund in Judges chapter 3). Further troubles occur all the way through the OT writings, Ps 60:8 refers to Moab as God’s wash basin. And Deuteronomy 23:3 lists them as one of the nations that is banned from ever joining the people of Israel. Nevertheless, we will see that love and faithfulness are held to be more important.
This journey to the foreign land in search of better life in some ways leads us the recall Jesus parable of the Prodigal son (see Luke 15:18). They leave the promised land and just as for the son in that story, so disaster falls on Naomi – here husband dies and so do her two sons. She is left empty and destitute with two foreign daughter-in-laws – Ruth and Orpah.
Naomi hears that the famine is ended in Israel and prepares to return home. She tells her daughter-in-laws to remain in Moab and return to their families, likely knowing the persecution and lack of marriage opportunities that they may face in Israel. She seemingly refers to the law of levarite marriage when pointing out that a close family replacement husband would not be possible for them. As we will see later in the story this law apparently was extended to the nearest living relative, not just a brother-in-law (Hebrew: levir). After a tearful goodbye, Orpah returns as instructed, but Ruth gives her profound 7-fold statement of faith to the God of Israel and personal loyalty to her:
(Ruth 1:16-17 NLT) “Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!”
When the two women arrive back in the region of Bethlehem, they arrive to the wagging of tongues and Naomi’s new name for herself: Mara: “bitter”.
But the OT law provided for a means for the widows, poor and foreigners to provide for themselves by gleaning the margins of the fields after harvest in the fields. The law actually specified that those outer margins and portions that had been missed should be left for the gleaners. Ruth, though vulnerable goes out to work and happens (I don’t believe in coincidence, do you?) to go to the field of a close relative to her father-in-law named Boaz where she is immediately noticed. The story indicates that Boaz had good relations with his workers, he was a kind and Godly man as we shall see.
Ruth, even though she was a foreigner, experiences grace and mercy at the fields of Boaz. His protection and generosity are at least partially motivated by Ruth’s uncommon faith in God and loyalty to Naomi. Boaz he has heard about her and invites her to share his meal, and arranges for her to be given extra barley to glean. Boaz offers Ruth a beautifully gracious blessing: “May the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done.”
Naomi notices Ruth’s uncommonly large harvest and rejoices to hear that she has caught the eye of Boaz. Hope seems to dawn as she prepares to go into a match-maker role. She tells Ruth that Boaz is one of her close relatives who is a “kinsman redeemer”. This refers to another OT law which is a closely related person charged with buying back the property or even the person of a poor relative who had to sell his land or even been sold into slavery (see Lev 25:25-55). Here is a direct tie to our NT faith. We call Jesus our redeemer because as Paul says we “are not our own” and were “bought with a price” as Paul says in 1 Cor 6:19-20. To redeem means to buy back, and so our Savior has done for us at the price our his own life. Ruth’s service to Naomi brought her to the attention of Boaz but Christ died for us, the undeserving (Romans 5:6-11) – Pure grace!
Naomi now instructs Ruth on the way she is to propose to Boaz, exercising her right under Jewish law as we saw last week (recall Deuteronomy 25:5-9) and particularly in the odd story of Tamar in Gen 38:6-30. It was apparently the woman’s right and responsibility to request her dead husband’s nearest relative to marry her and continue the family line. Ruth would have had little chance to see this practice in Moab, so Naomi takes over and tells her how to proceed – an appeal to both the man’s nature and his kinsman responsibility. This act while seeming very forward, is a humble appeal with legal backing. This law was for the protection of the woman and to prevent the ownership of the land from concentrating in the hands of a few. I wonder if family members might take a different view of who their siblings married if we had a practice like this?
The time of harvest was a festival and all the men would have stayed at the threshing floor to celebrate and guard the grain. Ruth does as Naomi instructed and proposes formally (vs 9) using the phrase “Spread the corner of your garment over me” Her proposal is graciously received by Boaz, but he tells her that there is a still closer relative than he to whom he must first offer the opportunity (It is clear however that he hopes he won’t). Boaz is clearly flattered that Ruth has come to him and commits himself to Ruth that he will resolve the matter promptly. He protects her till morning then sends her home to Naomi with an additional gift of grain. Naomi is quite pleased with the results of her instructions!
Boaz goes to the city gate, where the town elders met; it was sort of the county court-house of the day and waits until his relative comes by and snags him into a formal hearing right there. Boaz tells him of Elimelech’s land (which would have passed on the Mahlon and Kilion) which is to be redeemed (leaving out the part about Ruth) and he agrees that he will redeem it. THEN Boaz adds that he will also need to redeem Ruth and raise up heirs for that branch of the family. At this he backs out (to the delight of Boaz) worried about the complications to his estate. How many times do financial considerations get in the way of doing the right thing? The nearer relative and Boaz go through a formal ritual where by Boaz take of the responsibility and redeems both the land and heritage of Elimeleck and his sons by marrying Ruth. He is blessed by the Elders. Boaz marries Ruth and they have a son (named Obed, the father of Jesse and the grandfather of King David)) and a very happy grandmother in Naomi. She is now honored in the town because of the blessing that has come to her.
Love is a defining characteristic of God. We are studying 1st John on Wednesday’s and in a couple of weeks, we will hear John proclaim that love comes from God … for God is Love. Boaz did what was right out of love for God and love for Ruth and Naomi. Even though he was not first in line to do so – he could have begged off. After all Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite after all. – One of THOSE people! But the love of God knows no national boundaries, it does not respect the finer gradations of the technical law. The Love of God reaches out regardless of origin, race, class or any of the other distinctions we like to think are so important. Love is more important than the best of these.
Jesus is our kinsman-redeemer. He has graciously taken us in, buying us back from bondage to sin and death, and has spread his robe of righteousness over us, gathering us in to the family of God. We need only ask and receive the gift as did Ruth. Boaz brought Ruth into his home from her state of poverty, danger and hunger, so Christ feeds and sustains us. Let us always remember to thank him for his gracious love and to invite others to come and join the family. Its the loving thing to do!