Title: Leftover grain, Leftover people
Texts: Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17; Mark 12:38-44
Date: Nov 8, 2009
Author: Thomas Lehman
Our passages from Ruth and from Mark could hardly be more different as literature. After a first reading of the material from Ruth one could ask whether it belongs in the Bible. In contrast, Mark is familiar and relatively straightforward. Both deal with a frequent issue advanced throughout the Bible: How people with power should treat the poor in society.
Today’s passages from the 3rd and 4th chapters of Ruth stand by themselves in the current section of the lectionary. Nothing from Ruth was read last week, nor will it be next week. The author of the book is unknown.
The story leading up to today’s passages is as follows: Naomi, her husband, and their two sons left the land of Judah and moved to Moab on the other side of the river Jordan because of a famine in Judah. The sons marry Moabite women, but after a few years and no children, Naomi’s husband and her two sons die, leaving her with two daughters-in-law. When the famine in her homeland ends, Naomi decides to return to Judah and her people, but expects both of her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay in Moab. One of them, Oprah, does so, but Ruth declares herself bonded to her mother-in-law, Naomi, in these tender words: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God, Where you die, there will I be buried…”
The two women face physical and psychological hardships. Naomi and Ruth have no obvious means of support. However, a prosperous farmer named Boaz allows Ruth and others to glean in his fields after the barley has been harvested. Melinda gave a group of us the experience of gleaning sweet potatoes last month, and we were told that the individual sacks we filled went to needy families. Gleaning has a long history. The first reference to it in the Bible is a strong admonition found in Leviticus 23.22:
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.
The sad plight of Naomi and Ruth reflects the tremendous pressure on a woman in that culture to produce a male heir; Naomi’s sons are dead, and Ruth is childless. Our Psalm illustrates this very plainly in these words: “3Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord.” That’s poetry. A more pointed historical illustration is found in Genesis 19:30-38. Lot and his two daughters have fled the city of Sodom just ahead of its destruction, and are living in a cave. The daughters realize that prospective husbands are nowhere around, so they scheme to get their father thoroughly drunk. That night one of the daughters seduces him, and the next night, presumably after Lot gets another dose of alcohol, the second daughter does likewise. Both bear sons, and the one named Moab becomes the founder of the little country of Moab. The Jewish people have only scorn for the Moabites, their neighbors to the east, because of their incestuous origin. Women are to bear sons at all costs, it seems, but to the Jews Lot’s daughters went too far, and Ruth, about ten generations later, is a Moabite. Today we would also call her an alien.
In the Jewish culture of the Old Testament, a parent is responsible for arranging a marriage of the children. Thus Naomi comes up with a way to bring Ruth to the attention of Boaz. She tells Ruth: “here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing-floor. 3Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing-floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. 4When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.’
In the Jewish tradition the book of Ruth is read during the harvest festival. (GNSB) A good harvest has been celebrated around the world with merrymaking, and fertile fields lead to thoughts of human fertility. The OT makes it plain that a lot of merrymaking was associated with harvest time. Cf. Judges 9:27, 15:1, 21:21, Isa 9:3 (1953 IB)
Ruth, the perfectly obedient daughter-in-law, stayed with Boaz through the night but left before dawn, because Boaz did not want anyone to know that she had been there. Before she left, he gave her a supply of barley. Any reasonable reader will suspect that we are not told everything that happened on the threshing floor that night between a perfumed woman and a man who has been drinking. One commentator (NIB) refers to the “carefully contrived ambiguity” in the threshing floor account. We don’t know all that took place. However, if Hollywood ever makes a movie based on the story, it will be X-rated.
One scholar has written that “The actual method employed in carrying out Naomi’s plan is so foreign to our sex mores that it will be wisely rejected for homiletic purposes.” (1953 IB) In plain English, this means that no preacher should touch the story. This is the second time in my last three sermons where a commentator says to avoid preaching on some aspect of an assigned passage. Strange are the workings of chance.
Another scholar reads the story and throws this punch at the USA: “we must consider how people in a country that is in the process of tightening its immigration laws in order to protect its cultural identity will see or hear themselves in the … text.” (end of quote) Caucasians have had control of this country ever since they pushed the native Americans out, but, to quote the US census bureau, ”Minorities, now roughly one-third of the U.S. population, are expected to become the majority in 2042, with the nation projected to be 54 percent minority in 2050. By 2023, minorities will comprise more than half of all children.”
Our treatment of minorities could come back to haunt us in your lifetime.
A popularizer has reached a similar conclusion. The late Isaac Asimov, an immigrant from the Soviet Union, was possibly this country’s most prolific writer; “compulsive writer” is probably a better description. Educated and employed as a biochemist, he wrote or edited more than 500 books, enough to make him a one-man source for the book-of-the-month club. Among his titles is “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible.”
Ruth, daughter of the hated Moabite population, is among Jesus’ ancestors; King David is Ruth’s great-grandson, and Jesus is a descendent of David. Asimov cites 1 Samuel 22:3 to show the importance of kindness to foreigners: “And David said unto the king of Moab, Let my father and my mother…be with you, till I know what God will do for me.” The book of Ruth is a call to treat strangers and immigrants with kindness and generosity.
In Mark’s passage, scribes were teachers of the law, or rabbis. The parallel passage in Matthew 23 lumps them with Pharisees. The scribes and Pharisees went to extremes to keep the law; they were obsessed with it. Elsewhere Jesus says that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. (Matt. 5:17) His complaint against the Scribes and Pharisees is that they failed to practice what they taught.
(Mark 12: 38) ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places.’ Long robes were a sign and proof that the wearer did no manual work for a living. Today’s academic gowns serve the same purpose, at least for one day of the year. “To be greeted with respect” suggests titles that elevate the individual above the common herd. (IB)
(NIB) Note the story of the wise scribe in Mark 12:28-34, just ahead of today’s passage, in which a scribe asks Jesus what is the most important commandment. Jesus answers, and after a brief exchange he tells the scribe that he is not far from the kingdom of God. Not all scribes were bad, or hostile to Jesus.
That these two stories of scribes are very different and separated by only four verses, points to Mark’s method as an author. A more reflective writer would have said something about the differences between scribes in the two stories. Although Mark’s gospel is considered to have been written some thirty years after the events it describes, he sometimes writes like a news reporter observing random events. A leading NT scholar writes, “Calling Mark a literary genius is undoubtedly excessive.” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, p. 160] At the other extreme, John, author of the fourth gospel, reflects extensively, and adds a deep layer of theology to the narrative of the first three gospels.
In v 40, where scribes “devour widows’ houses” Jesus identifies the great vulnerability of the poor. Mark doesn’t call it “foreclosure” but it sounds like today’s news. We aren’t told how the scribes used their power to evict widows, but the strategy of exploiting the poor for the benefit of the rich takes various forms through much of history. This theme gets weekly, if not daily, mention in the protracted battle over health care legislation. High medical bills are the leading cause of individual bankruptcies in the USA. http://www.consumeraffairs.com/news04/2005/bankruptcy_study.html
Our society has found new ways to drive people into poverty and out of their homes while the wealthy add to their wealth.
In verse 40 we have widows losing their homes and in v. 42 a widow gives her last two coins to the synagogue. One is a forced sacrifice, the other one voluntary. In both cases the widows are destitute. On the gift of two small coins: we must value small gifts as we do large ones. We must also value gifts of time and talent in the doing of humble tasks. Child care during worship is an example that benefits all of us. Another opportunity is at our doorstep: we will soon start to build a panelized Mennonite Disaster Service house.
Mark 12:41ff has Jesus watching the crowd. “He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” Recent studies show that the poor are more generous toward each other in time of need than are the wealthy. (Google: poor+generous)
The two coins were all she had. It teaches a simple but important statistical lesson: we understand much more clearly when one number is compared to a reference number, in this case the woman’s net worth – two coins. We are easily fooled, especially by large numbers, when there is no basis for comparison. The current federal debt is about $12 trillion. Compared to what? [GDP = $14.1T]
According to a simplistic view of the Bible, the Old Testament gets things wrong, and the New Testament makes things right. Today’s stories, from Ruth in the OT and from Mark in the New, teach us the same thing: that we are to care for the poor and the aliens. Especially in this country, where the admonition has so many opponents, the call to care for the poor and the aliens is always timely. Members of this congregation are doing some of the right things––feeding the homeless, visiting prisoners, supporting the Inter-Faith Council with cash and food staples, gardening, and house construction. The United States should not have leftover lives struggling for leftover grain. May we continue to respond as we are able.