1st November 2015 - Hugh Perry
Ruth 1: 1-18
The book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible is placed in the third division known as the writings, which is where Maurice Andrew thinks it belongs. In our Bible it is placed to meet a Christian agenda, after the book of Judges, which closes with the words ‘In those days there was no king in Israel; all people did what was right in their own eyes.’ The next book following is Samuel which introduces David the ideal king which messianic expectations look back to.
Feminist scholars of course point out that this means the time of chaos in Judges where everyone does what they like is transformed into the time of order under David by the action of two women.
We begin at the beginning, which is the much romanticised tale of loyalty but we need to remember that it is not about romance between a man and a woman but a deep relationship between two women. It may also, in the real world, talk about a relationship formed in reaction to the harsh realities of a male dominated world that has little concern for the needs of childless widows, women who’s only function in society is to have sons.
Mark 12: 28-34
Last week in our Gospel reading we had the last healing miracle, this week we close off the questioning from the scribes and Pharisees with a question from a scribe.
This episode follows on from questions asked by the scribes and the Pharisees which, we are told in 12:13, were being asked to trap Jesus. There is a tricky question about taxes and then one about divorce and now we have a question by a scribe who seems influenced by Jesus’ answer and then we are told that the questioning stopped.
Scribes were people who studied the law, lawyers in our understanding and the question this scribe puts to Jesus is one commonly discussed by rabbis. It was understood that the Torah contained 365 probations and 248 positive commands so there was a desire to summarise the Torah and find a basic principal from which the whole law derived. The number of probations and positive commands gave plenty of room for debate in doing so. The first part of Jesus’ response comes from Deuteronomy 6:4&5 ‘Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, The LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might’. The second quotation is from Leviticus 19:18 ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD’. Hooker points out that the parallelism in the whole verse clearly indicates that neighbour referred to fellow Israelites but by the time of Jesus it seemed to have been extended to include non-Jews resident in Israel. Other rabbis and scholars also quoted these passages in answer to similar questions.
However when we take the whole Gospel, particularly passages from John into account, Christians understand neighbour as the whole family of humanity. In bringing these two passages together the command is to love God and love humanity or even love God by loving humanity with all the empathic considerations, cultural, racial and political implications such a love implies.
Our Gospel reading this morning focuses on the very essence of what it means to be a follower of Christ, to love God and love others. In fact we could also suggest that, as Christians, we are called to love God by loving others. Not just some others but all others.
Perceptive as ever Bill Loader notes that these two commandments are at the heart of the Gospel. Loving God and loving neighbour is the central theology that Christians need to be encouraged to own. Yet it is the fundamental theology that most fundamentalism denies. However these two commandments, endorsed both by Jesus and the scribe who questioned him, rapidly slip down the list of priorities wherever claims to absolute authority of the Bible, the Church, doctrine, ritual or order appear to need protection.
Thinking back over the years I have attended the Presbyterian general assembly I can remember that our concern for others drove us to some fierce debates over human rights. We demanded that an insurance company we had investments in withdraw from apartheid South Africa and we tore ourselves apart over sporting contacts with that nation. We even had one of our ministers the Very Rev John Murray invited as an official observer of the first multi-racial elections that formed the new South Africa. Without question we spent money on health and education in underdeveloped nations and supported inter-church partnerships committed to being good international neighbours in the name of Christ.
Then we plunged into decline as we debated year after year the banning of homosexuals from leadership in the church until enough fair-minded people left the church in disgust and the legislation was able to be past. Now we are on the last leg of the legislative journey to prohibit Presbyterian Ministers from officiating at same sex weddings.
As a church we have shifted our attention from unconditional love for others to passing legislation about which people can love each other. That seems very strange when today’s Gospel reading focuses on love rather than legislation as the very essence of Christianity. Particularly strange when the opening chapter of Ruth focuses on the love of two women for each other.
If, as a good number of people assume, we are called to behave in particular ways because ‘the Bible says so’ then the story of Ruth and Naomi seem to indicate that perhaps God isn’t a Presbyterian after all. Interestingly in my thirty years as a photographer I probably attended about twenty wedding a year and this morning’s reading from the book of Ruth would be the most popular wedding readings. That used to intrigue me because it is, as I have just mentioned a story about unconditional love between two women that has nothing to do heterosexual marriage. What does fit the marriage context was that it was love that was a major part of the story and love is a vital part of any relationship.
Certainly the tribal and patriarchal world of Ruth and Naomi contributed to the commitment of the two women and there are elements of desperation that in some ways make the relationship inevitable. As we will see in later chapter’s women had difficulty in surviving without men in the world of Ruth and Naomi but their chances of doing so were enhanced by working together.
We should also note Naomi’s loving concern in suggesting the women go back to their families. Internet dating hadn’t been invented and the best chance for the women was for their families to arrange new marriages for them. That was a sacrifice on Naomi’s part because it made her more vulnerable and it showed her love for her daughters in law
Although this is an ancient story about a completely different world to our own the love that binds people together is not unique to any particular time or culture. The biological facts are that we are a communal species and our need for each other to survive reaches beyond the basic need to reproduce.
When my youngest cousin Geoff was at varsity he formed a relationship with a woman who was older than him and had a young family. At his funeral she told me that she eventually broke of with him because she realised that he wanted a wife and family and she did not want more children. I suspect her divorce had left scars but significantly her loving regard for Geoff meant that she wanted him to have the opportunity to have a family. Love however is not something that we can easily organise and Geoff never married. However his widowed mother became best buddies with his ex-girlfriend and that friendship lasted for the rest of my aunt’s life. They were two women without men who looked out for each other, shared overseas trips with each other, and were always part of family gatherings.
At wedding services I usually say that marriage provides a relationship which society recognises, and a relationship that strengthens and enriches society. I have also said that at a civil union between two men. As proof of that statement I suggest that the relationship between my aunt and my cousin’s ex-girlfriend strengthened the relationships between my aunt’s family and all those connected to her children in some way. Often when Raewyn and I are in Auckland we get invited to my cousins’ family gatherings of people that are connected to each other by various relationships that stretch across the globe.
The vision in our Gospel reading is that love can extend relationships beyond our DNA to include the family of all humanity.
In the few weeks the program has been running ‘The DNA Detectives’ has not only demonstrated the diversity of our ethnic and cultural backgrounds but our desire to be related to other people. To be part of a family beyond our immediate relationships and recognise our connections with people we have never met before.
The full text that Jesus quotes from Leviticus states ‘You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.’ (Leviticus 19:18)
That clearly focuses on family and tribe and gives plenty of scope for revenge and genocide against the Canaanites or anybody else that could be considered not to be ‘Your own people.’ However, although the two texts Jesus quotes in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel don’t necessarily prohibit vengeance on those we might not consider to be neighbours, the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel very definitely does. If we are serious about following Jesus we have to build our image of Christ from all the Gospels. Therefore regardless of the outcome of the world cup the story of the Good Samaritan instructs us that we even have to love Australians as ourselves, Peter FitzSimons included.
Furthermore programmes like the DNA Detectives point out that the further we look back at our ancestry the more we discover just how many diverse people are in fact ‘our people.’
We are not just a communal species, we are a migratory species and our history is filled with captive slaves, shipwrecks, wilderness journeys in search of new beginnings, and journeys of conquest that spread the DNA of young men in some unlikely and forgotten places. There have also been wave upon wave refuges from war and domination along with refugees from economic ineptitude and climate change. Of course in places like New Zealand and Australia our people have come from all those places and we have left a genetic trail that stretches around the world connecting us all to the great family of all humanity. We have a family history that cries out for the recognition that we are all ‘our people’ our neighbours, members of the family of all humanity who we must love as we love ourselves.
Furthermore as Mark has Jesus link the two quotations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus we learn that the way we love God is by loving others as we love ourselves.
We live in a world where the superpowers wage war by proxy and the planes of death make widows, orphans and refugees of the world’s poorest people. As wave upon wave of disposed people spread into overcrowded cities and threaten the lifestyle of the descendants of past refugees Jesus conversation with the scribe in today’s Gospel reading underlines the truth in John Lennon’s words:
‘Love, Love is all you need’
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999),p.205.
 Morna Hooker The Gospel according to St Mark (London: A&C Black, 1991), pp.287,288.