Friday, October 16, 2009

Proper 26 Year B

Proper 26 B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Ruth 1:1-18; Psalm 146


Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalm 119:1-8

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Seeking relief from the latest famine , Elimelech, a Jew from Bethlehem, took his wife, Naomi and their sons to Moab, (the land occupied with the tribe-- descended from Lot's incest with his sister --that had become a large, powerful and separate nation). While there, his sons married Moabite women, Orpah and Ruth. Over ten years, all three women were widowed. Naomi decides to return to Judah with her two Moabite daughters-in-law. On the journey, Naomi encourages Orpah and Ruth to return to their families, who would surely taken them in and give them protection she could not promise, and return to "their gods." In a wrenching scene of departure, Orpah leaves. But Ruth "clung" to Naomi, despite Naomi's discouragement. Ruth now makes a moving statement of loyalty and affection: "Where you go I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your God will be my God. Where you die, I will die-- there will I be buried." Hearing Ruth's determination, Naomi "said no more."

The psalmist praises the Lord for traits that always remain reliable, unlike "princes" who, when they die, their plans come to nothing. God's reliable traits are maker and sustainer who always does justice. Here the psalmist lists specifically those who are consistently included in requirements for justice in the Torah: the oppressed, the hungry, the blind and defamed, foreigners, orphans and widows. This "Lord will reign forever.... Hallelujah!"


Walter Brueggemann regards this particular summary of the Law in Deuteronomy as an example of "pedagogy of saturation." He continues, "this speech is summons, demand, assurance, and invitation to belong to this community of utterance, and to the world uttered by this community, including the God at the center of this world." (Theology of the Old Testament, p.722)

The longest of the psalms extols the inherent worthiness and direct personal benefits of memorizing the Lord's precepts/decrees/statutes/commands/righteous laws, which will never fail.

The writer of this "letter" to "the Hebrews" recasts the ancient practices and teachings about Temple worship to apply to Christ as the complete and final fulfillment. As "High Priest," Christ entered into the "Holy Place" not with the blood of animal sacrifice but with his own blood. If the blood of animals can "sanctify," he reasons, "How much more will the blood of Christ, through the eternal Spirit [who]offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to the living God!"

Mark's narrative chronology arrives at the third day in the week in which Jesus was executed. Mark has already established that the enemies of Jesus are out to discredit, embarrass, expose or trick him into self incrimination, (12:13). But Mark's narrative (only among the gospel writers) takes a surprising twist. He introduces a Scribe who overhears the grilling Jesus is enduring and asks a straight-froward question: "which commandment is the first of all?" Mark writes that Jesus provided a conventional conflation of Deuteronomy (6:4-5) and Leviticus (19:18b) which places the complete fulfillment of God's Law in love-- love of God and love of neighbor. The Scribe shows his agreement with Jesus by improvising his own summary and then adds, "this is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices." Jesus regards the Scribe as "wise." He then tells the Scribe that his comment places him close "to the kingdom of God." Mark notes that this exchange silenced those who had been interrogating Jesus.

Wittgenstein's famous aphorism still survives frequent repetition: there is no such things as a private language. Starting from this position complicates the accepted relation between Jesus (and his followers) and his ancestry. Eager to extol the spectacular display of God's love in Jesus, the writer of the "letter" to "the Hebrews, in particular, interprets Jesus as a fulfillment that supersedes an exhausted Judaism. But something important can get lost in this human desire for completion. Gabirel Josipovici describes the contrast between Hebrew and Christian texts this way: "the difference is that the New Testament claims to know what meaning is, whereas for the most part the Hebrew Bible claims that there
is a meaning." About the "Letter to the Hebrews," Josipovici asks, "Is clarity better than unclarity? Fulfillment than non-fulfillment?"

Many writers labeled postmodern have rejected completely Western modernity's requirement that scripture
must meet its criteria of "certainty." In a summary of the groundbreaking work of self-described devotees of "postmodern Jewish philosophy," Robert Gibbs articulates this principle: "Revelation is not information about God, but a shock that requires me to interpret the sign that the shock is." (Reasoning after Revelation, p.49)

The Bible defies human insistence on wrapping up its story in concepts. The "shock" it records simply will not allow human conceptualization to have the final word. (So today's epistle and gospel put each other in a different light.)

Just at the moment Mark's narrative ratchets-up the tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, he unexpectedly writes in a Scribe on the periphery of the crowd. After a dialogue between the two in which each recognizes something essential (familial?) in the other, Jesus honors the man, Sir, "you are not far from the kingdom of God."

And so it turns out that whoever puts (in word and deed) love of God and neighbor as the "first commandment" is the "foreigner" accepted into the "family" of the other. They find themselves saying to each other "wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge I will lodge; your God will be my God...." No one engaged in this relationship bound together by love of God and neighbor is far "from the kingdom of God." This kindred/familial spirit out strips even the most sincere and pious devotion, all forms of "burnt offerings and sacrifices." The loving, loyal follower of Jesus looses nothing by acknowledging such kinship and gains the approbation of Mark's Jesus as well. The delusion of our "certainty" vanishes-- as ultimately do all human schemes, the psalmist reminds us-- because the "shock" of God's revelation that love of God and neighbor is the nub of the whole thing is simply not finished.