The Greatest Commandment
Today we begin a short series on the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a small book which is found in the Old Testament. It is a story which starts in the midst of famine, death and despair. However, throughout the Book of Ruth we see faithfulness towards God in action. We also witness how one individuals lives out the commandment to love your neighbour.
The Greatest Commandment
During weddings it is typical to hear the following words spoken when the couple make their vows, “…to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.”
It’s a vow that says no matter what happens I am there for you. That no matter what circumstances befall us I will stand with you and love you. I will work with you and I will support you. It is a wonderful profession of love towards our soon to be spouse. It is a promise that is made by countless couples a multitude of times throughout the year. In many ways these vows we make at marriage become a social contract that bind society together.
When we look at our neighbours we know that they have made this promise or one like it to one another. Though our relationships are different we share that one common bond. Each married couple has made that similar promise.
Now marriage today takes on a different aspect then it did in the ancient world. The when a couple were married there was less a creation of a new family and more of a joining an already existing family unit.
Naomi and her husband took their boys to the land of the Moabites because of a famine in Israel. Traveling to Moab is significant. Moabites and Israelites don’t get along. Moabites were seen as outsiders. In fact the Book of Ruth may have risen out of a desire to critique the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah in a period of restoration for Jerusalem. These two leaders tried to purify Israel’s ethnic identity by casting out foreign wives. Keep it in mind, Ruth is a foreigner and an outsider to Israel.
While living in Moab Naomi’s sons were married. Shortly afterwards Naomi’s husband dies, followed soon by her two sons. What we are left with is three widows and who as women suddenly find themselves very exposed and vulnerable.
Naomi decides she will return to Israel as the famine has ended. She tells her daughters-in-law to remain in the land of their people. Orpah takes Naomi’s advice and she leaves. But Ruth, well she is another matter altogether. She decides that she will stay with Naomi, that Naomi’s people will become her people. The speech that Ruth makes to Naomi that Margret read to us this morning is wonderful and poetic. It ends with the line “May the Lord do thus and so to me and more as well, if even death parts me from you.” It is an interesting play on our own modern wedding vows.
Coincidently, this passage often gets used at weddings. However, it is probably not the most appropriate wedding passage as it is lodged in death and despair. At this point in the story there is no bright light at the end of the tunnel.
There is a lot of irony in this story which is lost to us with our English translation of this story. For example Naomi’s name mean ‘pleasant’ in Hebrew. However, if we look at her life it is anything but pleasant. Ruth’s name means ‘friend’ which she surely is to Naomi. Bethlehem literally means the ‘house of food.’ Which is fascinating when we consider that a man who would name himself ‘the Bread of Life’ is later born here.
Ruth’s story is an interesting one. Why would a woman cling to her mother-in-law? Most women I know don’t love their mother-in-law in quite this fashion. It’s often the love-hate relationship that we often see on sitcoms. We are not given a clear reason why Ruth decides to stay with Naomi. We might think that Ruth might be better off returning to her own family rather than staying with a widow who was beyond child bearing years.
There is a children’s story by Margret Wise Brown about a little bunny who decides to run away. The little bunny tells his mother his plan, but she responds that wherever he goes she will follow. He says he’ll turn himself into a fish, a rock on the mountain, a crocus, a sailboat, and a number of other things to try to get away. But his mother says she will turn herself into a fisherman, a mountain climber, a gardener, the wind amongst other things so she can find him. At the end of this conversation the little bunny says, “Shucks. I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.” To which his mother offers him a carrot.
This children’s story is about the unfailing love of a mother to her child. We see a similar love from Ruth to Naomi. That wherever Naomi goes Ruth will follow.
The beginning of the Book of Ruth is lodged in famine and death. However, by the time we reach the end of the first chapter we see signs of life. The famine is gone, Naomi and Ruth arrive in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barely harvest. New life has been planted and we witness the love between a woman and her mother-in-law.
I find strong parallels between this story and what Margret read in our gospel lesson this morning from Mark. Here Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is. Jesus responds with a passage known as the Shema which we find in Deuteronomy. Jesus says, “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.”
Jesus then adds that you shall love your neighbour as yourself. In Luke’s gospel this teaching will continue with the story of the Good Samaritan.
Friends, what Mark’s gospel demonstrates to us is we can’t run away from God’s love. God calls us into a relationship of love. Often the belief system we have constructed for ourselves tells us that our relationship with God is dependent on us. That we are the determining factor in our relationship with God. As if we get to decide how things work. People may exercise this understanding by choosing to attend church or not. By choosing to believe or not. We think we are in charge, but we aren’t. We think we can escape God’s love, but we can’t. There is no escape from the love of God.
That just like the little bunny and its mother, God’s love follows us. As Christians we are called to love God and to love our neighbours as ourselves. I see this love of neighbour played out by Ruth in her willingness to follow Naomi. So committed is she to this that in many ways she denies herself. She sticks with Naomi as though she had spoken wedding vows to Naomi and not Naomi’s son. In doing so she binds herself to her husband’s family in a way which is truly shocking. A deep system of care is created. Imagine what our family systems might look like if in making wedding vows support networks of such deep care were created.
The love that Ruth models for Naomi is wonderful. We see at the end of this chapter that perhaps something good is in store for both Ruth and Naomi. However, Ruth does not make this promise because she believes she will be blessed. She makes her promise to love Naomi, because she loves Naomi and perhaps because she understands this commandment to love your neighbour. Something that as a Moabite women she would not necessarily be well versed in.
What is even more fascinating is that the woman who make this profession of love. The women who loves Naomi as herself, will one day become a distant relative to a man from Nazareth named Jesus. The same Jesus who would sit in the temple court and tells those gathered to love their neighbours as themselves.
In the opening of Matthew’s gospel you will find the genealogy of Jesus. In that long list of difficult to pronounce names you will find the name of a woman named Ruth. Perhaps this is advent come early. You might not imagine that such an outsider would be a relative to Jesus, but then if you know anything about Jesus’ story this shouldn’t surprise you. Amen.