Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
Last Friday the movie, Spotlight, opened in theaters. It is the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church. According to the New York Times, the movie’s major concern is “the way power operates in the absence of accountability. When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaboration is not easy. Challenging deeply entrenched, widely respected authority can be very scary.” It is often women who do that.
The story of Ruth and Naomi invites us into a family without borders; an experience of transforming love and hospitality; and a generative spirit that multiplies love. In case you don’t know the story, Ruth is Naomi’s daughter-in-law. Naomi’s husband and two sons both died while she lived as a foreigner in the land of Moab. Ruth was a Moabite who chose to return to Israel with Naomi, even though it wasn’t her obligation to do so, and even though Naomi did not ask her to and could offer her no security. What today’s section reveals is the impact which that act of love had on Naomi. When Naomi returned to her circle of friends, she told them her new name was Mara, which means bitter. She was understandably bitter and sad with all her loss. But over time the impact of Ruth’s love healed the bitterness and opened Naomi to love again, so much so that she wanted to make sure that "it will go well" with Ruth. She was able to extend herself, to put another person's welfare first, and she was also able to think about the future, even though she felt she had none herself. Naomi made it her life’s cause to guarantee that Ruth found security. In that culture that meant Ruth had to find a man. The only men a widow could marry were relatives of her deceased husband. Enter Boaz.
The biblical version is the PG version of an R rated story. Ruth was told to dress in her finest, wait until Boaz was drunk and full and about to fall asleep, and then to “uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” If anyone wonders what that was code language for I’ll whisper it to you after the service! Boaz had already been unusually kind to Ruth. When she asked him why, he responded, “All that you have done f or your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.” (2:10-11) Ruth’s story had inspired Boaz. That is the core of the story for me. The love Ruth showed to Naomi inspired Naomi to dedicate her life to finding security for Ruth. The same love led Boaz to notice Ruth and treat her with extraordinary kindness. Indeed, “love evokes love.”
The Gospel story is connected to Ruth’s story in many ways – not just that both deal with widows. The striking thing about the Gospel story is not just that the widow gave all that she had. It is that Jesus noticed her action. Seeing anything against the backdrop of the temple during the daytime was unusual. Some historians say that the temple was overlaid with so much gold that when the sun shone on it the brightness made it unbearable to look at. Jesus was able to notice the widow in spite of the brightness of the temple. More than that, she served as the perfect illustration of what he had just stated in public: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” This widow is an example of how exploitation works.
Naomi and Boaz noticed Ruth’s love, and it evoked a loving response in them. Jesus noticed the widow’s love and used it to call his disciples to notice how the beautiful temple hid a system of exploitation that needed to be overcome in the interest of love. Beauty still hides systems of exploitation.
At the Parliament of the World’s Religions last month I was moved to tears by stories of modern women. Joan Brown Campbell was the first woman President of the National Council of Churches. We heard story after story of her courageous interventions with Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro. In the 1950s she met Martin Luther King when both were young. He encouraged her to go into the ministry, even though women did not do that back then. One time when King went to Cleveland, he visited several black churches, but wanted to visit a white church as well. She invited him to hers. But when she asked the pastor he hesitated. The next thing she knew they had pulled up the carpet in the church and the pastor informed her that they were getting new carpet and it would be inappropriate to have Dr. King come when they had no carpet. She refused to stop there. So she negotiated to have him speak from the steps of the church, with people gathering outside. Over 3,000 people arrived to hear Dr. King that night. I can only imagine the pastor with his tail between his legs after that.
Neither Ruth nor the widow in the Gospel nor Joan Brown Campbell challenged authority because they were natural rebels. They all did it because deep inside each of them was a quality of love that the Bible calls hesed. Hesed is sometimes translated “covenant love” or “faithful love.” It is one of the central features of Israel’s God. The stories of “little people” show how hesed works in what one writer has called “the dirt-real lives of the many.” Malcolm Sinclair
Hesed love is the foundation upon which churches, communities, and a better world are built. And even though God is its ultimate source, hesed is best learned by receiving it from another human being – one in whom we encounter the image of God. Of course that means there needs to be a Ruth, a widow with her mite, and a Joan Campbell in whom that image is being made clear; and it means that there must be a Naomi, Boaz and Jesus who get spiritually centered enough to notice the image of God in another broken clay pot of a human being.
One of the most impactful experiences I had at the Parliament of the World’s Religions was eating lunch at the Langar. A Langar is a term used in the Sikh religion for a common kitchen where food is served for free in a Gurdwara to all visitors without distinction of background. Each day of the Parliament, the Sikh community served thousands of free meals to the delegates. They welcomed us into the space, invited us to remove our shoes and led us through a display about social ministries of the Sikhs. They gave us head coverings, a cloth to wash our hands, and ushered us to sit in lines on the floor. Then people started serving us food and drink from large containers, dishing up portions onto our plates. It was a modern day feeding of the 5000 with a level of hospitality that was transformative. It was so simple, and there was so much dignity and love generated. It could have been a feeding of the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. But in this case the people being served were not poor or homeless. We had all managed to get to Salt Lake and pay for a hotel. For people like us to be served so graciously and freely touches and transforms the heart. Such hospitality and love do not belong to a single religion. It is a human quality that transcends any particular religion. The theme of the Parliament was “Reclaiming the heart of Humanity.” The Langar was the clearest lived expression of that theme.
Ruth's story of unexpected welcome and faithfulness, Jesus’ story of unnoticed generosity, Joan’s story of courageous confrontation of authority, and the Sikh’s radical hospitality all shine a light on God's relational grace. They take us beyond our natural limits to see God’s hesed love occurring in history. We discover through them that God’s grace has the capacity to expand into new situations and problems. We can draw on this kind of grace when we respond to questions prompted by new circumstances in a new day, and count on the covenant law to be flexible enough to handle the challenges they present. When we are open to noticing hesed love being expressed in unexpected places, we will enter the stream of love evoking love, and become part of the new history that is emerging out of the old. What are you noticing? How can you shine a light on God’s relational grace?