The story of the family of Naomi and Elimelech plays out in real time within a half mile of this beautiful chapel. A family can't eat, can't support itself, in the homeland that it loves, and so, with their beloved children, they make the perilous journey to another country, one where, they hear people can have enough food if they work hard. It is forced migration. They get to the other country, one whose people don't particularly like them, and they become model citizens. They keep their religion and they cherish their culture, but they participate fully in their new home. Their sons marry local girls. They earn the respect of all. Guatemalans, Mexicans, Africans, Caribbeans – how many of our neighbors, like many of our own families in the past, were forced to move to eat.
But for Naomi there is a return forced migration. Her home, Bethlehem, is now a place with food, and the death of her husband and sons in Moab has left her with absolutely no security. She has got to return. How many forced migrants today go back home if they can; others return because their new country has been a failure for them. For Naomi, it is both. Moab, her temporary home, was an historic enemy of Israel, and the text repeatedly calls her daughter-in-law “Ruth the Moabite, Ruth the Moabite.” We are not to forget that Ruth is One of Them. The people of Bethlehem to whom Naomi returns might well tell her she deserves all of her losses and suffering for having gone to live with foreigners, and for taking them into her own family.
And yet it is Ruth the Moabite – Ruth the Enemy – who gets it. She refuses to abandon her vulnerable mother-in-law and find security back with her own family. She decides to worship the God whom Naomi is so sure has abandoned her. Naomi thinks that God has split the scene; Ruth decides to worship that God with the whole of her life, to trust, and to find God everywhere. Later, Naomi's neighbors will tell her that Ruth's love for her is worth more than seven sons. They tell Naomi because, in her grief, she can't see it. Ruth the Moabite understands and inhabits the love of the God of Israel. She's not supposed to get it, but she does.
We see the same thing in our text from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is being quizzed and challenged within a series of passages by the religious experts of his community – Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes. They are trying to trip him up, to get him to say theologically incriminating things, things they can use to challenge his growing popularity at best, and to condemn him for blasphemy at worst. A crafty scribe tries to nail him with a question with no wiggle room – surely Jesus will incriminate himself! Which of the religion's many commandments is the first and most important? But Jesus outsmarts him, gives him a composite answer, and uses the snare as an opportunity to teach. He combines two portions of the Torah – first, the Shema (“Hear O Israel”) from Deuteronomy 6 and a verse from Leviticus 19 to produce this answer, “The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; 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.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these.” Jesus gives the scribe a two-for-one deal, and miraculously, the scribe gets it. He says, “Yes, you are right – to love God and neighbor completely is more important than every token of piety we perform. What matters is our love for God, ourselves, and others, and how that makes us live.” Jesus tells him that he is not far from the kingdom of God. Like Ruth the Moabite, this scribe understands God's law of love.
Jesus makes a little addition to the commandment in Deuteronomy, and the scribe must have picked up on it. Jesus adds the word “mind” to the list of attributes with which we are to love God, and it's very important - we are to love God with all our heart and soul and MIND and strength. We do love God with our minds – or as the scribe rephrases it, our “understanding.” We think while we believe and we believe while we think. Faith and intellect don't challenge one another; they complement one another. The more we learn about the human body, the natural world, the universe, the more we marvel at the very mind of God, and at the indescribable beauty, intricacy, and brilliance of the world within and around us – of Creation. Many years ago, I saw a church sign in Brooklyn that had on it the famous image of a pious Jesus at prayer and underneath that the words, “He came to take away your sins, not your minds.” It's a bit snarky, but it's true, and it's aimed at our many coreligionists who embrace a fierce anti-intellectualism – to an extent sometimes laughable, sometimes annoying, and sometimes dangerous. A fundamentalist chaplain at a university I once served taught his students to say – and to say to me - “Your mind is so open your brains have fallen out.” Discussion on the matter of faith and intellect has descended into snarky meanness all around, apparently! But Jesus Christ loved God with all his mind, and he instructs us to do the same, to persevere in understanding and critical analysis of all things, beginning with God.
Underneath the scribe's question to Jesus, and central to Christ's response, is the matter of what to do with inherited tradition. What are the appropriate boundaries for revision and change? How to prioritize commandments and teachings? What to do with practices and teachings that contradict the Christian faith as we believe it should be practiced today? Human chattel slavery no one will defend. But how about changes to metaphors for God? Does God only have to be Father, Lord, King, or can God be Mother, Friend, Love, Holiness beyond all human categorizing? Christians today are at odds on how much change is appropriate for images of God in the face of some who say their honest and faithful experience of God does not match the received tradition. How about worship styles? Music? Whom to ordain? Whom to let marry? Whether and how the church should partner with people of other faiths or none? Jesus' answer to the scribe – and to us – is to love God and neighbor with the whole of our beings, including our minds, and we will be able to discern the way forward. We cherish our traditions, we believe they testify to God's truth, but in Christ's day as in our own we feel called by a faithful integrity to question, to expand, and sometimes to discard what we have received. This isn't a problem to avoid but a challenge to be embraced in every generation.
Including the generations before Christ! Some biblical scholars believe that the Book of Ruth was written to challenge reforms made by Ezra and Nehemiah some generations earlier. Amongst other things, they had banished foreign wives and children. I can't imagine the suffering, but I bet that some forced migrants in this country today can. Ruth, we learn, will be the great-grandmother of King David; she saves the line of David and keeps the nation from extinction. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Mathew, we read that Ruth is, through Joseph, a foremother of Jesus. An immigrant does this. In the face of received tradition, the Book of Ruth argues against religious sanctions on ethnic purity, just as Jesus warns the scribe against doctrinal purity. God continues to be at work, and our unyielding efforts to safeguard purities as we understand them sometimes contradict that holy movement. And as we hear and read in the news today, we can use such notions to support inhumanity, even killing. Jesus was firmly planted in his tradition, but always interpreting it in light of real and current circumstances. The Book of Ruth does the same.
Ruth's story also has for us much wisdom for today, in that today is All Saint's Day in the Christian calendar, the day we remember those we have loved and lost. Naomi and Ruth lost everyone and everything. Naomi was so brokenhearted that she could not recognize that God's grace and love were accompanying her in the form of Ruth. God was always with her. God was always accompanying her, but not in the form she wanted or expected, or she would have seen it. We are always accompanied in our losses, whether we feel the presence of God or not, whether friends, family, and colleagues around us and the love they pour out upon us make any dent in our grief or not. The name Ruth means “friend.” Sometimes, like Naomi, we only notice God's accompaniment with hindsight. But it has always been there.
We go through seasons of loss, seasons of restoration. For any here who miss someone badly, take heart. You do not walk your road alone. You may be lonely, but you are not alone. Through the loving presence of others, or in the quiet depths of your heart, soul, mind and strength, you are accompanied by God always.
www.workingpreacher.org , Nov. 4, 2012, Ruth 1:1-8, Patricia Tull; Mark 12:28-34, Micah D. Kiel
Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brow Taylor, Year B, Vol. 4, pp. 242-265