Participating in the Purposes of God

© Michael Clarkson, 2018.  Preached at St. John’s, Ithaca, NY, November 11, 2018, for Proper 27, Year B, Track 1.  Texts: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 Image: The Widow’s Mite by James Tissot.

“Where did we go wrong?” asked the student in my office, his voice full of pain.  The room was full of pain.  His teammates shared it.  I shared it.  Over the course of a few weeks, their team had broken down.  Trust had been betrayed, confidence broken, and the way forward was unclear.  “Where did we go wrong?”  Each step, each action, had seemed right to him at the time.  But it had led to disaster.

What actions are right?  What actions are wrong?  Those questions, and the possible pain behind them, resonate in our lives everywhere, every day.  They resonate in the scripture readings today.  Ruth and Boaz had hard choices to make.  So did the widow with two copper coins.  So did the scribes, for that matter.  They were all called to discern what is good, what is right, what is holy.[1]

How do we go about doing that?  When I have struggling students, how do I discern what is good and right and holy?  When you have choices in your family or job or church, how do you discern what is good and right and holy?  I bet you had choices like that to make this week.  Maybe little choices, maybe big choices.  If we were to pause right now, I bet you could call some to mind.

The task of discerning what is good, right, and holy requires us to know God.  For if we truly knew God, we could make God-like choices and behave in God-like ways.  Easier said than done!  But we do have God-given guideposts.  We have the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Bible.  We have the 10 commandments.  We have the summary of the law, heard at the beginning of each 8:00 service, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”

In the Anglican tradition, one of our greatest theologians is Richard Hooker (d. 1600).  Hooker characterized knowledge of God and relationship with God as participating in the purposes of God.[2]  To love your neighbor is to participate in the purposes of God.  To adhere to the 10 commandments is to participate in the purposes of God.  To follow the teachings of Jesus is to participate in the purposes of God.

So, inspired by Hooker, let’s spend a little time in three vignettes from today’s readings, asking what is good and right and holy, and how those questions involve participating in the purposes of God.

First, the reading from Ruth.  Like Esther, which came up about a month ago in the Sunday lectionary, this is another short story that we read only once every three years.  We missed the first half last week (because All Saints’ Sunday preempted it), so let me back up.  In the opening of the book of Ruth,[3] a man from Bethlehem migrates with his wife, Naomi, to the land of Moab.  This would immediately be shocking to the story’s Jewish audience.  The Moabites were descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew, but they were not a beloved part of the family.  Moab had a reputation of being wanton and idolatrous.  Moabites weren’t eligible to convert to Judaism for a full 10 generations.  Not only did the family resettle there, Naomi’s two sons even took Moabite wives, presumably writing off their Jewish identity.  One of those wives was named Ruth.  Then disaster struck.  Not only did Naomi’s husband die, but her two sons died, too.  The three widows—Naomi, Ruth, and the other daughter-in-law—were left to fend for themselves in a patriarchal society where women with no husbands and no sons had no standing.  Naomi had heard that the famine was ended in Judah, so she decided to return.  She encouraged her Moabite daughters-in-law not to go with her—they weren’t very welcome back in Judah, after all—but Ruth insisted on going with Naomi, saying, “Where you go, I shall go.  Where you stay, I shall stay.  Your people will be my people, and your God, my God.  Where you die, I shall die.  Nothing but death will part me from you.”  After that extraordinary profession of loyalty, Naomi and Ruth return to Judah and enter the welfare system, such as it was, of gleaning the barley leftover in the field after the workers had gone through and harvested the crop.  It was a dangerous life for a poor woman.  But by providence, Ruth ended up gleaning in the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi’s late husband.  After some late-night possibly risqué activity—the verses that the lectionary skips over in the middle of today’s reading are entertainingly ambiguous—Boaz resolves to marry Ruth and buy back Naomi’s family property.  Marrying Ruth is another extraordinary act, because it would presumably mean ruining his family line.  Nonetheless, Ruth and Boaz have a son Obed, whose has a son Jesse, whose son is King David, from whose house descends Jesus, the Messiah.  All from the line of a Moabite—an immigrant.[4]

With that background, let’s return to the choices being made by Ruth and Boaz.  Ruth could have stayed in her own land, where at least she had family who wouldn’t consider her an outsider, where she probably had a better chance of remarriage.  Instead, she is faithful to her mother-in-law Naomi.  Rather than leave Naomi alone, Ruth forms a little community with her.  Ruth chooses to be a part of Naomi’s world, not to hold herself separate from it.  Ruth becomes a sign of God’s grace to Naomi.  In a way “Ruth is God to Naomi:  a loving, abiding presence that goes where she goes and will be with her even till death.”[5]  And in that way, Ruth is participating in the purposes of God.

Boaz is much the same.  Rather than spurn Ruth because of her ethnicity, Boaz marries her and forms a family.  Boaz is a loving, abiding presence to Ruth.  He goes beyond all bounds of law or duty.  He becomes a symbol of that wonderful Biblical notion of chesed, of covenantal faithfulness, that God showed to Israel.  And in that way, Boaz too is participating in the purposes of God.

Second, onto the Gospel reading.  The context here is during the early half of Holy Week.  Jesus has entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, with the crowd shouting “Hosanna!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!”  The restoration of the Davidic kingdom might seem to be at hand.  But immediately before today’s verses, Jesus rejects that notion.  Then he denounces the scribes.  In contrast to the praiseworthy actions of Ruth and Boaz, the scribes are acting in a blameworthy way.  It’s worth reading closely to understand what Jesus is and is not condemning.  The scribes like to walk around in “long robes.”  So what?  Maybe they’re comfortable?  Actually, the garment in question was a large, outer prayer shawl that properly was worn only at certain services.  Instead, some scribes were apparently parading around in them at other times.[6]  Imagine, for example, wearing choir vestments out on the Ithaca Commons while eating lunch.  The problem is not that the scribes are wearing robes per se, it’s that they are wearing them for the wrong reasons.  The robes are being used to distinguish them as elite individuals, rather than to subsume their identity into well-ordered worship.   The robes are being used to separate themselves from the rest of the world.  The robes no longer point to God; instead, they point to the sin and brokenness of those who wear them.  The scribes are not participating in the purposes of God.

It’s the same problem with the greetings of respect, and the seats in the synagogues, and the places of honor at banquets.  Each of those had a proper usage in the culture of the time, but some scribes were abusing them.  They expected the greatest deference to be paid on account of their supposed religious superiority.[7]  They were pursuing their own purposes, not God’s.

And, Jesus continues, the scribes were devouring widow’s houses.  Religious leaders of every age have been known to prey on the credulous and the vulnerable.  Our age is no exception.  Take your pick of examples:  televangelists who extort money, priests who abuse children, or fearmongers who poison hearts against any of God’s children who might be different in ethnicity, race, or sexuality.  The problem is not having religious leaders per se, nor is it encouraging stewardship, nor even saying long prayers.  The problem is that those have been coopted into the purposes of the very human religious leaders, not the purposes of God.

Third, and last, is the widow in the Gospel reading who donates two copper coins to the Temple treasury.  The translation of “worth about a penny” should possibly be revised to “about a dollar” in today’s money,  but honestly that’s not far off.[8]  Jesus says that’s “everything she had, all she had to live on.” Literally, the text reads, “her whole life.”  She gave her whole life to the Temple.  Does that remind you of anyone else in the story?  Was Jesus himself watching this and thinking ahead to what might happen to him in a few days?  Was he contemplating the act of giving his whole life?  Of entering into the heavenly Temple and giving his own Precious Blood to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself?  We don’t know.

We also don’t know how Jesus evaluates the action taken by the widow.  He says nothing to pass moral judgment on her donation.  Yes, she’s put in more than all the other donors by putting in all her money.  But is that praiseworthy?  Maybe the widow’s generosity was like that of Boaz and Ruth, going beyond all bounds of duty and law in response to God’s faithfulness.  Or, maybe it was a misguided act by a vulnerable woman at the edge of society who was being preyed upon by those in power.  The story is ambiguous.

Those are our three vignettes:   Ruth and Boaz, the scribes, the widow.  Three opportunities to contemplate what is good and right and holy.  Three ways to participate in the purposes of God:  one a positive example, one negative, and one ambiguous.

So, what guidance do these vignettes give us?  When you and I next have a choice in our family or job or church, how will we discern our participation in the purposes of God?

Let me offer three words as criteria for answering that question:  corporate, incarnational, and sacramental.[9]

The purposes of God are corporate.  They bring us together as a people, rather than isolating us as individuals.  Naomi and Ruth and Boaz came together to form a family, despite ethnic divides.  But the scribes drew attention to themselves as leaders of elite status and supposed worth.

The purposes of God are incarnational.  They make us part of the world, not separate from it.  Ruth made the risky choice to be part of Naomi’s world, rather than stay behind in her own country.  But the scribes separated themselves from the communities they were meant to serve.

Finally, the purposes God are sacramental.  They effect God’s grace in the world, not human brokenness and sin.  The scribes weren’t effecting God’s grace.  But Ruth became that grace for Naomi; Boaz became that grace for Ruth; and Boaz’s descendent Jesus became that grace for every one of us.  We live today in trust that, as the second lesson said, “having born our sins, Jesus will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save we who are eagerly waiting for him.”

That is the good news of the Gospel.  That is what makes us good and right and holy.  That is what binds us in faithfulness to the purposes of God.

Acknowledgements.

Nancy C. Bowen.  “Ruth,” in Theological Bible Commentary, Gail R. O’Day and David L. Petersen, eds., Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

Raymond Brown.  An Introduction to the New Testament, Yale University Press, 1997.

Dennis E. Nineham.  The Gospel of Saint Mark, Penguin Books, 1969.

Timothy F. Sedgwick.  The Christian Moral Life, Church Publishing, 2008.

Michael Williams, ed.  The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, volume 4, “Old Testament Women”, Abingdon Press, 1993.

Footnotes.

[1] Sedgwick (p. 8).

[2] The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, by Hooker, as paraphrased by Sedgwick (p. 36).

[3] This summary of Ruth paraphrases Michael E. Williams in Old Testament Women.

[4] “How could a Moabite woman become the great-grandmother of Kind David?  After all, Deuteronomy says no Moabite can become a member of the community for 10 generations.  Ah, the rabbis say, the Torah doesn’t say that a Moabitess could not be welcomed.”  [Ruth Rabbah 1].

[5] Bowen.

[6] Nineham (p. 333).

[7] ibid.

[8] Literally a quadrans, which was 1/64 of a denarius, which was a day laborer’s wages.

[9] Sedgwick (p. 27-8).