God of the small

11 November 2012
Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17B (RCL)
Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Psalm 127
Hebrews 9:24-48
Mark 12:38-44

Ruth is a favorite book for many Christians (myself included). It tells such a lovely story, of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law getting along, something as rare then as now. But, it tells this charming story to make a much more important time. I believe that Ruth was written at about the same time as all the other post-Exilic literature was written. Ezra/Nehemiah also falls into this category, as does Leviticus. The Jews returning from Babylon faced the question of Jewish identity: What makes us Jewish. Each of these authors answered it in a different way. Leviticus answered that anyone who sacrificed at the Altar in Jerusalem was Jewish (note, and this is hugely significant, that Leviticus contains no legislation about who may or may not marry whom, except the usual rules about consanguinity and the proscription of same sex sex-acts). Anyone who sacrifices is Jewish.

Ezra/Nehemiah posits a very different answer. One must be able to trace one’s ancestry back to the kingdom before the Exile in order to claim Jewish identity. Things aren’t going so well with the return, precisely because Jews have married foreigners. Ezra 9 stipulates that all of the local men must divorce their foreign wives, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. Of course, the options wouldn’t look so good for these women. Would their fathers take them back, and if not, then what?

The author of the Book of Ruth say, “Wait just a minute,” and then tells this story about a Moabite woman. Of course, the bits we leave out of the reading for this Sunday are the fun bits. Ruth lies at Boaz’s feet (a euphemism) and comes home in the morning with an apron full of seed. Another near relative renounces his right to marry if he would be required to let Elimelech’s land pass to the progeny. So Boaz marries Ruth, and she becomes the great-grandmother of David. In small acts of human loyalty, God’s great plan is carried forward, and it doesn’t matter, says the author, if it is loyalty on the part of a Moabite woman or a Jewish man.

In the passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus makes essentially the same claim. God cares more for the widow’s tiny contribution than all the billions of the super-PACs. Her devotion matters more in the grand scheme of things (at least God’s scheme of things) than all the clout of the scribes.

Hebrews endeavors to understand how Jesus fits into a sacrificial understanding of Judaism (it would be interesting to know if Hebrews was written before or after the Temple fell). Jesus, small and insignificant in his own way, crucified as a criminal outside the walls, has entered the eternal sanctuary (not the earthly duplicate) and once for all interceded for us sinners.

What we offer on the altar is our own small loyalties. It’s easy to get discouraged when the problems seem so insurmountable, but those simple, charming human loyalties matter more to God than all the rest of it.

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